(Reuters) - A Wisconsin appeals court on Thursday ruled that the daughter of a woman killed in a 2012 mass shooting can sue the operator of a firearms classified ad website from which the killer illegally bought his gun.
The three-judge panel of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that a federal law that shields website operators from liability for user content did not apply to Armslist LLC, the operator of Armslist.com.
Armslist was liable for its “own conduct in facilitating user activity,” the judges said. They referred to the site’s design and operation, which allegedly promotes illegal gun sales.
The case appears to be the first in the country in which a website has been allowed to be sued over a shooting committed with a gun it helped to sell.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a U.S. advocacy group for gun control that was co-counsel in the lawsuit, said other courts have interpreted the federal Communications Decency Act as broadly immunizing sites that are forums for activities like gun sales.
“With one in five guns sold today without a background check - many through online sales on sites like Armslist - today’s decision is a significant one toward saving lives,” Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady Center, said in a statement.
Armslist and its lawyer, Joshua Maggard, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit stems from a 2012 shooting at a beauty salon in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Gunman Radcliffe Haughton killed his wife, Zina Daniel, and two of her co-workers there before taking his own life. Four other people were injured in the shooting.
Haughton was able to buy his FNP-40 semiautomatic handgun and ammunition through Armslist.com although he was legally barred from purchasing a firearm at the time due to a domestic violence restraining order. The order would likely have prevented him from passing federally mandated background checks at a gun store.
Yasmeen Daniel, Zina Daniel’s adult daughter, sued Armslist in 2015, alleging the company had acted negligently and that the website’s design and account features encouraged illegal transactions.
The lawsuit claimed studies showed prohibited purchasers like Haughton are attracted to Armslist.com due to its anonymity and the fact that no account registration is required.
A lower court had dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the Communications Decency Act protected Armslist from the claims.
The case is Yasmeen Daniel et al v. Armslist, LLC et al at the Court of Appeals State of Wisconsin, District I, case no. 15-cv-8710
Reporting by Tina Bellon; Editing by Dan Grebler