Calif. judge rules families of fatal 2019 synagogue shooting can sue gun manufacturer

A state judge in California has ruled that families of victims killed and wounded in a 2019 synagogue mass shooting can proceed with a lawsuit against Smith & Wesson, the manufacturer of the rifle used in the murders despite a federal law protecting firearms makers from liability in such instances.

In a ruling Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Kenneth Medel declared that victims and families of the shooting during an April 2019 Passover service in Poway, Calif., have adequately demonstrated that the gunmaker knew its AR-15-type rifle was easily modifiable into a weapon that is banned by California law, according to reports.

Medel ruled that the families could sue both Smith & Wesson and the gun shop that sold the rifle.

John Earnest is accused of killing 60-year-old Lori Gilbert Kay, and wounded three others including an eight-year-old girl. Police later discovered an anti-Semitic letter that had been posted online. Though he had no prior criminal record, Earnest now faces state murder charges that could bring a death sentence as well as federal hate crimes charges, the San Francisco Chronicle added.

The ruling appears to fly in the face of a 2005 law passed by a GOP-controlled Congress and signed by then-President George W. Bush protecting gun manufacturers from most incidents involving their firearms.

In his ruling, Medel also found that plaintiffs could sue on claims that the gun maker was negligent in allegedly marketing the rifle to youths via social media and per video game-style advertisements, the Chronicle noted further.

In addition, Medel ruled that the firearms dealer, San Diego Guns, could be held liable for allowing John Earnest to buy the rifle because he was just 19 at the time and did not have a hunting license, which, under California law, would have exempted him from the state’s requirement that adults be at least 21 to purchase long guns.

Prosecutors allege that Earnest, who was a nursing student, fired on the Chabad of Poway synagogue during the final day of Passover services in 2019. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was wounded in the shooting, joined then-President Donald Trump in 2019 for the National Day of Prayer Service at the White House.

After the shooting, Earnest allegedly called 911 to report that he had fired on the synagogue because Jews were trying to “destroy all white people,” the AP reported.

Jon Lowy, chief counsel for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, who filed suit on behalf of the survivors and families, called Medel’s ruling a win for “all Americans who believe that the gun industry is not above the law.”

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a similar lawsuit to be filed against Remington Arms by families and survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn. Plaintiffs allege that the company was in violation of Connecticut law by manufacturing and selling a military-style weapon. The company has since filed for bankruptcy but the lawsuit is pending.

Medel’s ruling comes as New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation earlier this week that allows civil lawsuits by municipalities against gunmakers for criminal actions committed by third parties.

“This law is unconstitutional, plain and simple. It is abhorrent that Governor Cuomo is rehashing a decades-old failed playbook that was rejected by courts in the 1990s and early 2000s,” said Lawrence G. Keane, National Shooting Sports Federation senior vice president and general counsel in a statement Thursday.

His organization plans to enjoin a lawsuit to strike down the law.

“Governor Cuomo is, again, blameshifting for his administration’s failures to prevent crime by pointing fingers at firearm manufacturers that have been working with federal, state and local authorities for real solutions,” he continued.

“This law is based on the same legal understanding that would allow victims of drunk drivers to sue Ford and Budweiser for the criminal actions of an individual. This law is not legal accountability. It is political posturing.”

Jon Dougherty

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