Despite a federal law that bars negligence claims against gun dealers, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled today that the mother of a schizophrenic woman who bought a gun and used it to kill her father can sue the pawnshop that sold her the gun.
Although it said Janet Delana’s negligence claim was barred by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), the court said the law did not bar her “negligent entrustment” claim against Odessa Gun & Pawn.
The court sent the case back to the trial court, which had granted summary judgment to the pawnshop.
The case drew both gun rights and gun control proponents into the fray. Delana was backed by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence while the pawnshop was supported by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The United States also weighed in, defending the constitutionality of the PLCAA.
Other national organizations, including the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, National Domestic Violence Hotline, National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, National Latin@ Network and Major Cities Chiefs Association, filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of Delana. The last, representing police chiefs and sheriffs of large cities, argued that law enforcement has a compelling interest in preventing gun dealers from selling firearms to people who are reasonably likely to use them to harm others.
“There’s no question this is a case of national importance,” said Jonathan Lowy a lawyer with the Brady Center who represented Delana. “The Supreme Court of Missouri has spoken unanimously and held that irresponsible gun dealers can be held accountable for criminal shootings that result from their negligence.
“And that is not only the law of Missouri, but it sends a powerful message to other courts around the country and also sends a powerful message to gun dealers around the country that if they don’t act responsibly, they can be held accountable.”
Attorneys for the gun shop could not immediately be reached for comment.
As recounted in the court’s opinion, Delana called the store manager of Odessa Gun & Pawn on June 25, 2012, and asked him not to sell a gun to her daughter, Colby Weathers. She told him that Weathers, who had bought a gun there in May and attempted to commit suicide, was severely mentally ill. She gave the store manager her daughter’s full name, social security number and birthdate and said to him, “I’m begging of you. I’m begging you as a mother, if she comes in, please don’t sell her a gun.”
Two days later, the pawnshop sold Weathers a gun and ammunition. Within an hour, she used the gun to shoot and kill Tex Delana, her father and Delana’s husband.
Weathers was charged with murder. She pleaded not guilty by reason of mental defect or disease and was committed to the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
Delana subsequently sued the pawnshop, its owner and the store manager, alleging they negligently sold or entrusted the gun to Weathers.
In finding that the trial court properly rejected Delana’s negligence claim, the Supreme Court ruled that it was preempted by the PLCAA, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2005. The law was passed in response to a wave of lawsuits against the gun industry by municipalities seeking to stem gun violence.
The PLCAA provides broad immunity to gun manufacturers and dealers, preempting civil actions against them in federal or state court, with several exceptions. One of those exceptions is a suit brought under the legal theory of negligent entrustment.
In this case, Delana claimed that Odessa Gun & Pawn provided a firearm to Weathers knowing that she would likely use it in a manner that posed an unreasonable risk of harm to herself or others.
The trial court threw the claim out, ruling that even if it was not preempted by the PLCAA, Missouri did not recognize the theory of negligent entrustment.
The Supreme Court ruled otherwise. In an opinion joined by the entire court, Judge Richard B. Teitelman said Missouri does recognize such a claim. He said that two earlier Missouri cases holding that Missouri law does not permit negligent entrustment actions were inconsistent with Missouri precedent.
“Irrespective of what the claim is called, Missouri law authorizes claims that fit within the PLCAA’s definition of a non-preempted claim for ‘negligent entrustment,’” Teitelman wrote.
In sending the case back to the lower court for a possible trial, Teitelman also said that Delana could sue the store owner and manager under that theory.
Although it allowed Delana to proceed with her negligent entrustment claim, the court rejected her argument that the PLCAA violates the 10th Amendment by dictating to Missouri how to carry out its lawmaking function.
The court said that argument was without merit, finding the law “does not commandeer the executive or legislative branch of Missouri government. The PLCAA requires only that Missouri state courts, consistent with the Supremacy Clause, immediately dismiss any preempted action for civil liability.”