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Multimillion-Dollar Settlement Reached In Kansas Gun Store Negligence Lawsuit

Chris Haxel
KCUR 89.3
While shielded by federal law from many lawsuits, gun stores can be sued for negligence if they sell to a person they know, or should know, is likely to use the weapon illegally.

The families of several people who were killed or wounded in a 2016 mass shooting near Wichita, Kansas, have reached a multimillion-dollar settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the pawn store that sold some of the guns used in the attack.

The lawsuit alleged that local retailer A Pawn Shop sold the guns to a woman as part of a straw purchase, which is when one person buys a gun on behalf of someone else, circumventing background checks and federal law.

The gunman later used the weapons — a handgun and AK-47 rifle — during the February 2016 attack centered on his workplace in Hesston, Kansas.

Three people were killed and 14 others were wounded.

Gun makers and retailers typically can’t be sued when crimes are committed with weapons they produce thanks to a 2005 federal law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which shields them from civil liability.

Gun stores and pawn shops can be sued for negligence, however, if they sell to a person they know — or should know — is likely to use the weapon illegally.

In the Hesston case, Sarah Jo Hopkins, the mother of the shooter’s children, repeatedly used the man’s credit card to pawn guns.

“That should have been a red flag that she was not the intended user or purchaser of the gun,” said David Morantz, a Kansas City, Missouri, attorney who represented one of the plaintiffs. 

Under a settlement agreement announced Wednesday, the pawn store’s insurer will pay $2 million to settle lawsuits filed by the widow of Joshua Higbee, who died in the attack, the family of another victim who was killed and three victims who survived.

The pawn store is no longer in business.

“A settlement like this should put those gun dealers on notice that they need to operate correctly,” Morantz told Guns & America. “They need to adhere to the law and they need to help prevent straw purchases.”

Jonathan Lowy, who heads the Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and assisted with the lawsuit, said most gun dealers are responsible business owners.

“But like in every business, there are some bad apples,” he said. “And unfortunately in the gun industry, those bad apples are ones that have control of an arsenal of lethal weapons.“

Lowy, who has been suing the gun industry on behalf of gun violence victims for more than 20 years, said courts across the country are becoming more receptive to lawsuits filed against gun sellers, and some gun control groups are using the courts to test federal and state laws.

“Red States and blue states, trial courts, appellate courts and state supreme courts (are) all recognizing that gun dealers can and should be held accountable when they act irresponsibly,” he said.

In March, the Connecticut Supreme Court narrowly ruled that a lawsuit filed by nine victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting against Remington Arms could move forward — despite PLCAA, the law meant to prohibit such lawsuits.

In that case, the court said PLCAA shields Remington, which made the rifle used in the attack. But the judges also said the families could sue for violations of a state law under the theory that Remington improperly marketed a military-style weapon to civilians.

Morantz previously secured a settlement in a straw-purchase lawsuit related to the 2014 attack outside the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas. Lowy, meanwhile, represented plaintiffs in a 2016 incident in which a Missouri woman with schizophrenia used a gun to kill her father.

The woman’s mother — and victim’s wife — had previously called the store to warn that her daughter might try to buy a gun. That lawsuit was settled for $2.2 million.

Chris Haxel is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email him at chaxel@kcur.org, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisHaxel.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story omitted David Morantz's involvement in a lawsuit related to the 2014 attack outside the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas. 

As a reporter covering military and veterans’ affairs, I tell the stories of current and former service members and their families. I hold the government, elected officials and others responsible when they break their promises. And I explore how Americans can best uphold our commitments to those who serve.
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