Smith & Wesson must face synagogue shooting victims' suit

Police secure the scene of a shooting incident at the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego. April 27, 2019. REUTERS/John Gastaldo

(Reuters) - Victims and survivors of a 2019 mass shooting at a California synagogue can go forward with a lawsuit accusing firearms manufacturer Smith & Wesson of negligently marketing the AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle used by the shooter, a San Diego state judge has ruled.

Judge Kenneth Medel of the Superior Court of California for San Diego County rejected Smith & Wesson's argument that the lawsuit was barred by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a federal law that generally shields gun manufacturers and sellers from being sued over shootings. San Diego Guns, the store that sold the gun, is also a defendant in the case.

"Today's judgment is a victory, and an important step on the road to justice for the victims of the shooting at Chabad of Poway Synagogue, and all Americans who believe that the gun industry is not above the law," said Jonathan Lowy of Brady, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "We look forward to proving our case in court, and working to prevent future tragedies."

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Smith & Wesson and San Diego Guns could not immediately be reached for comment.

In their June 2020 lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged that Smith & Wesson violated state law by designing the M&P15 rifle to be easily modifiable into an assault weapon.

They said the company used marketing "that attracted impulsive young men with military complexes who were particularly likely to be attracted to the unique ability of AR-15 style weapons." They noted that the company said M&P stood for "Military and Police," even though most of the guns were sold to civilians.

The plaintiffs said the marketing appealed to would-be mass shooters, including John Earnest, the 19-year-old accused of killing one worshipper and wounding three others in a shooting spree at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in Poway, California on April 27, 2019.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and an injunction requiring Smith & Wesson to stop its allegedly deceptive marketing campaign and to reform its distribution and sales practices.

The defendants sought to dismiss the case as barred under the PLCAA. Medel, however, found that it fell under an exception to the PLCAA that allows lawsuits to be brought against gun manufacturers or sellers for violating state law.

Medel said the lawsuit alleged violation of California's Unfair Competition Law, which bans misleading marketing, qualifying for the PLCAA exception.

The case is Goldstein et al v. Earnest, et al, San Diego County Superior Court, California, No. 37-2020-00016638-CU-PO-CTL.

For the plaintiffs: Jonathan Lowy of Brady

For Smith & Wesson: Not available

For San Diego Guns: Not available

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Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at brendan.pierson@thomsonreuters.com.