Pennsylvania Superior Court To Reconsider Whether Federal Law Protecting Gun Manufacturers from Liability Is Unconstitutional

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently considered the constitutionality of the U.S. Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) of 2005, which  immunizes gun manufacturers from liability for crimes committed with their products.  In September 2020, a Superior Court panel became the first court in the country to hold that the law was entirely unconstitutional,  Gustafson v. Springfield Armory. In December 2020, the Superior Court vacated the panel’s decision and is anticipated to hear reargument in 2021. 

The PLCAA was passed in 2005 and specifically prohibits “civil liability actions from being brought or continued against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, or importers of firearms or ammunition for damages, injunctive or other relief resulting from the misuse of their products by others.”  The act describes imposing such liability “on an entire industry for harm that is solely caused by others” as an “abuse of the legal system.”  It continues by stating that the liability, “erodes public confidence in our Nation’s laws, threatens the diminution of a based constitutional right and civil liberty, invites the disassembly and destabilization of other industries and economic sectors lawfully competing in the free enterprise system of the United States, and constitutes an unreasonable burden on interstate and foreign commerce of the United States.”

The law was challenged in a case that arose following the shooting of Mark and Leah Gustafsons’ 13-year-old son, James Robert (“J.R.”) Gustafson.  The Gustafsons sued Springfield Armory for the death of their son after his friend accidentally shot and killed him with a semiautomatic handgun.  The legal basis for their suit was that the gun has a product defect because it should have disabled after its clip was removed. The PLCAA barred the suit, however, because the shooter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.  The PLCAA immunizes gun manufacturers from defective design claims where the discharge of the firearm is “caused by a volitional act that constituted a criminal offense.” In other words, where an injury results from both a defective design and a criminal act, the PLCAA bars any claim for defective design.

The Gustafsons argued that the PLCAA does not apply because it: “(1) overrides Tenth Amendment principles of federalism, (2) cannot be sustained under the Commerce Clause, and (3) violates the Fifth Amendment.”  The U.S.  government stepped in to defend this challenge to the PLCAA and argued that the law was permissible under both the Commerce Clause and the Bill of Rights. 

The trial court that heard this case first upheld the PLCAA as constitutional and barred all of the Gustafsons’ claims.  The Gustafsons appealed this ruling to the Pennsylvania Superior Court by asking the court to consider whether the PLCAA bars their claims and whether the U.S.  Constitution allows the PLCAA to prevent Pennsylvania courts from applying Pennsylvania laws offering civil justice.  The Pennsylvania Superior Court panel released its opinion in September 2020, overturning the holding of the trial court and ruling that the PLCAA is not constitutional.

The Superior Court panel agreed with the Gustafsons’ claim that the law is unconstitutional under the Tenth Amendment because it infringes on powers reserved to the states.  The court noted that state legislatures had been divided on the issue of gun manufacturer liability, but Congress was able to pass what it called a “nationwide moratorium on common-law, joint-and-comparative-liability claims.”  It stated that allowing Congress to control state actions in a state court requires all the states to “forfeit all their sovereignty to the Federal Government.” In doing so, it would effectively be allowing Congress to “consume everything the Tenth Amendment reserves to the states.”

Although other state courts have held that parts of the PLCAA are not constitutional, the Pennsylvania Superior Court panel was the first to court to hold that it is “repugnant to the Constitution of the United States and, therefore, without the force or effect of law.”

It should be noted that some members of Congress have attempted to repeal this act, though no efforts have been successful.  For instance, House and Senate Democrats introduced the Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act in 2019 in an attempt to repeal federal protections for gun manufacturers from liability.  This bill was referred to a subcommittee in June of 2019, but no action on the bill has occurred.

It is not surprising that the Superior Court granted reargument. It is highly unusual for an intermediate state appellate court to hold that a fifteen-year old federal law violates the federal constitution. It is unknown whether the Superior Court will follow other state courts which found portions of the law are unconstitutional. It is anticipated that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would review any future decision that the federal law or portions thereof are unconstitutional.   

With contribution from Angela Mauroni, second year J.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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