But it said they could sue under the theory that Remington, which owns the company that makes the Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle used by Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA) by marketing the gun, a variation on the Colt AR-15, in a way that emphasized its "militaristic and assaultive qualities". "Today's decision is a critical step toward achieving that goal". Investigators said he was obsessed with mass shooters.
In a mass shooting that rocked the United States shortly before Christmas in 2012, a 20-year-old gunman killed 20 school children aged six and seven and six adult staff, using a Remington AR-15 Bushmaster rifle, a semi-automatic civilian version of the USA military's M-16.
Justices wrote in the majority opinion that "it falls to a jury to decide whether the promotional schemes alleged in the present case rise to the level of illegal trade practices and whether fault for the tragedy can be laid at their feet".
The families had tried to advance the case on a relatively novel argument in gun litigation based on the legal doctrine of negligent entrustment, an argument historically used when someone lends a vehicle to a high-risk driver who then causes an accident. In reinstating a case that a lower court dismissed in 2016, the court seemingly adopted the families' novel way around a federal law that protects the gun industry from liability.
The US Supreme Court has trended toward rejecting state law claims that are barred by federal law, he said.
The company may be guilty of making unlawful marketing claims, the court ruled, due to its promotion of a military-grade weapon for hunting and "recreational" use by civilians; its use of images of combat when selling the AR-15; and its use of slogans like "Consider your man card reissued".
The lawsuit seeks undisclosed damages.
Military-style rifles have been used in many other mass shootings, including in Las Vegas in October 2017 when 58 people were killed and hundreds more injured.
The case had been closely watched by advocates on both sides of the gun issue. Several groups, ranging from the NRA to emergency room doctors, submitted briefs to the court.
The 2005 federal law has been cited by other courts that rejected lawsuits against gun makers and dealers in other high-profile shooting attacks, including the 2012 Colorado movie theater shooting and the Washington, D.C., sniper shootings in 2002.
Robert J. Spitzer, chairman of political science at the State University of NY at Cortland and an expert on guns and the Second Amendment, said the CT ruling runs counter to the 2005 federal law.
Because this decision involves interpretation of a federal statute, the gunmaker will nearly certainly appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Remington could also prevail at a trial, so this is just a first step toward manufacturer liability.
"The likelihood they'll succeed is small", he said. The lawsuit will now allow the plaintiffs to gain access to internal Remington documents that can shed light on its advertising practices.
The Sandy Hook families had focused on a portion of their argument against Remington on "negligent entrustment", essentially saying that the company sold guns to civilians knowing they are risky outside of certain institutions like the military.