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Sandy Hook families announce $73 million settlement with Remington Arms in landmark agreement

The families of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre reached a $73 million settlement with Remington Arms, the gunmaker of an AR-15 style rifle, on Feb. 15. (Video: The Washington Post)
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correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Remington accepted liability in a settlement with the Sandy Hook families. A court filing noting the settlement does not mention liability. The article has been corrected to reflect the change.

When the families of nine of the victims of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School began their lawsuit against the gunmaker of the Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle, their goal was to spare other families the pain that had upended their own lives.

On Tuesday, the victims’ families marked a victory in that effort with the announcement of a $73 million settlement with the now-bankrupt Remington Arms, which manufactures the Bushmaster.

“They had the motivation to do whatever they could … so that other families — whether they are in a suburb or township or city — would not have to go through the kind of pain and the loss that they had,” Joshua Koskoff, an attorney for the families, said during a Tuesday news conference.

The settlement, reached with the families of five children and four adults who were killed in the 2012 shooting, draws in all four of Remington’s insurers and allows the families to share thousands of pages of company documents it obtained during discovery — provisions that legal experts and attorneys for the families say represent a landmark victory in forcing a gun manufacturer to face responsibility for how it markets its products.

Crucially, the settlement also provides a framework for how to pursue legal action against gun manufacturers that have for decades enjoyed broad protection from lawsuits under a federal shield law.

“The plaintiffs’ lawyers used a novel legal strategy, which convinced the Connecticut Supreme Court that the case could proceed despite a federal law making it difficult for such suits to even be brought,” John Culhane, a law professor at Widener University Delaware Law School, said in an email Tuesday.

Koskoff, the families’ attorney, said the settlement sends a signal to gunmakers that they cannot act with impunity and clearly “have skin in the game.” He also warned insurers and banks of the steep financial risks to “underwriting companies that elevate profit by escalating risk.”

Representatives for Remington could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong (D), who in 2017 filed an amicus brief in the state Supreme Court in support of the Sandy Hook families, said in a statement that the families showed the gun industry is not above the law.

“Today’s settlement is a clear indication that PLCAA is not the impenetrable shield that the gun industry wishes it to be, and that gun manufacturers who violate state consumer protection laws can and should be held accountable,” Tong said. The PLCAA is the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a federal shield law that grants gun manufacturers broad immunity from lawsuits.

Tearful family members of the victims gathered at a Connecticut hotel Tuesday as Koskoff discussed the culmination of their eight-year-long battle that began two years after shooter Adam Lanza tore through the Newtown, Conn., elementary school with a high-powered rifle and killed 26 people, including 20 young children.

Koskoff noted the families of the victims “would pay it all back just for one minute” with their loved ones lost in the mass shooting.

“That would be true justice,” he said.

Tuesday’s agreement isn’t the first time a gun manufacturer has settled with the families of victims killed by its firearms: In 2004, Bushmaster agreed to pay $2.5 million to families of victims in the D.C. sniper case.

At the news conference, families recounted the pain of being deprived for nearly a decade of holidays, birthdays and everyday moments with their loved ones killed in the 2012 shooting and grieved over the futures cut short — some as early as six years into their young life.

Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son, Dylan, was among the victims, accused Remington of prioritizing profit over safety.

“It used reckless marketing tactics that appeal to at-risk and violence-prone young men,” Hockley said, summarizing the families’ argument against Remington. “Marketing that is targeted to those who want to appear more intimidating, more powerful and more masculine though their use of their AR-15s.”

The narrowed lawsuit was filed under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act and contended, among other things, that the Bushmaster was a “combat weapon” designed for war, yet Remington improperly marketed it to civilians.

In particular, the complaint alleged Remington pushed a weapon to young men like Lanza, the 20-year-old shooter who killed 20 first-graders and six educators before turning the gun on himself; Lanza also killed his mother off-site before the school shooting.

In one marketing campaign Koskoff described to reporters, Bushmaster enabled people to “report your friend for not ‘being a man’ because they didn’t own a Bushmaster” and submit the friend’s email address to the company so they would be notified.

“Bushmaster in particular was the brand associated with things that are not legal, like combat for civilians and assaultive type things,” Koskoff said.

The decision to focus narrowly on Remington’s marketing is what ultimately lifted the suit from long-shot to pathbreaking.

The first major legal hurdle came in 2016 when a Connecticut judge tossed the suit, saying it wasn’t allowed under the PLCAA.

The families appealed, and the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in their favor in 2019, saying the federal law did offer some carve-outs for state law. The U.S. Supreme Court months later declined the gunmaker’s request to dismiss the suit and let the state Supreme Court’s ruling stand.

Mass shootings in the U.S. are overwhelmingly committed by men. Experts are examining the place of masculinity in the gun debate. (Video: Nicki DeMarco, Erin Patrick O'Connor, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Tuesday’s settlement more than doubles the sum Remington offered roughly six months ago in a rejected $33 million offer and draws in all four of Remington’s insurers in addition to allowing families the rights to disseminate once-elusive information on how the company markets and strategizes around its products.

The families expressed hope the information they extracted from Remington during their lengthy court battle can help other cases against gun companies. Koskoff said they would have rejected a settlement that was purely financial, calling the document-sharing provision a “linchpin” of the agreement.

“It was a pretty easy decision for us to say, ‘No documents, no deal,’ ” Koskoff said.

Sandy Hook Elementary shooting leaves 28 dead, law enforcement sources say

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who teaches products liability, said the settlement represents two significant turning points for other plaintiffs who seek to hold gun manufacturers responsible.

The Sandy Hook families’ victory creates a path others can follow if they file complaints in states with similar statutes to Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act and establishes that the family can share the valuable internal company information gained through the discovery process.

Families of Sandy Hook shooting victims can sue gunmaker Remington over 2012 attack, court says

“Plaintiffs don’t know in lots of cases how the manufacture designed a weapon, how they advertised it, what kind of corporate decisions were made — and that was central to the Connecticut case,” Tobias told The Washington Post. “They had access to documents and could take depositions of high-level employees at Remington; the plaintiffs’ counsel will make that available to other counsel for other cases.”

The settlement with Remington marks Sandy Hook families’ second legal victory in four months. In October, a judge ruled Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist and founder of Infowars, had to pay damages to families that stemmed from his false claims that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a “giant hoax.”

Calling the settlement “historic,” President Biden said, “We can deliver a clear message to gun manufacturers and dealers: they must either change their business models to be part of the solution for the gun violence epidemic, or they will bear the financial cost of their complicity.”

The Dec. 14, 2012, tragedy remains the deadliest elementary school shooting in U.S. history. While it was viewed early on as a potential turning point for gun control, meaningful reform has remained elusive: Despite pandemic-forced school closures, 2021 saw the most school shootings at K-12 campuses since at least 1999, according to a Post database.

Embattled Remington isn’t the only gun manufacturer under pressure: Last year the Mexican government filed a suit against at least five other major gunmakers alleging that lax controls have fueled a surge in homicides over the past decade.

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