June 25, 2021
Today the Texas Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision granting a petition for a writ of mandamus filed by Academy, Ltd. d/b/a Academy Sports + Outdoors (“Academy”) to dismiss lawsuits arising from the 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas pursuant to the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (“PLCAA”).
Plaintiffs in four consolidated lawsuits had argued that Academy violated the Gun Control Act (“GCA”) because it sold a Ruger AR-556 rifle, with a thirty-round Magpul magazine included in the box, to the shooter, who had presented a Colorado driver’s license and represented that he was a resident of Colorado on the Form 4473. 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(3) generally prohibits the sale of firearms to residents of other states, but allows the sale of rifles if the “sale, delivery, and receipt fully comply with the legal conditions of sale” in the state in which the licensee’s place of business is located and the state in which the purchaser resides. The Ruger AR-556 rifle was legal in both Texas and Colorado, however, Colorado prohibits magazines with a capacity of more than fifteen rounds. Plaintiffs argued that because the thirty-round magazine was included in the same box in which the rifle was packaged, the sale did not comply with Colorado law. The Texas Supreme Court held that Academy’s sale of the rifle to the shooter did not violate the GCA. This is because the GCA only required Academy to comply with Colorado firearms law, and the Ruger AR-556 rifle is legal in Colorado. The Court recognized that a magazine is not a firearm and therefore the GCA did not require Academy to comply with Colorado law restricting magazine capacity when selling magazines in Texas, regardless of the state of residence of the purchaser.
Plaintiffs also argued that the exception to the PLCAA for negligent entrustment was satisfied. The Texas Supreme Court held that this exception does not apply. The basis for this decision was that the PLCAA does not create any causes of action, and Texas law only allows a claim for negligent entrustment in connection with the lease/bailment of products, not the sale of products. In a concurring opinion, Justice Boyd agreed that plaintiffs’ negligent entrustment claim was barred. However, he would have held that plaintiffs’ negligent entrustment claim was barred because it was not valid based on Texas law. He would not have held that it was barred by the PLCAA because of the exception for negligent entrustment claims.
The Texas Supreme Court’s decision also contains useful language that will be of benefit to firearms manufacturers and sellers in other PLCAA cases. It unanimously rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the PLCAA does not provide immunity from being sued, but only prevents a manufacturer or seller from being held liable for a qualified civil liability act. The Court noted that:
Congress did not say that “no liability may be imposed in a qualified civil liability action” or that “a manufacturer or seller of a qualified product may not be held liable in a qualified civil liability action”; it said that such an action “may not be brought in any Federal or State court.”
It also unanimously rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the PLCAA is just a preemption defense that does not provide immunity from being sued and having to defend against a qualified civil liability act. The Court noted that a federal preemption defense is based on an argument that federal law preempts conflicting state law, such that the court should apply federal law, instead of state law to decide issues in the case. It recognized that unlike a preemption defense:
The PLCAA tells the court when it is (and is not) available as a forum to decide certain disputes under any law. 15 U.S.C. § 7902(a) (“A qualified civil liability action may not be brought in any Federal or State court.” (emphasis added)). The PLCAA’s focus on the court as an available forum, while not necessarily jurisdictional, renders the statute qualitatively different from those that inform the court what law to apply.
This decision will therefore be of benefit to other members of the firearms industry asserting immunity pursuant to the PLCAA. It will provide additional support to respond to the increasingly frequent arguments by plaintiffs that the PLCAA is not an immunity statute.
Renzulli Law Firm is honored to be part of the defense team that obtained this significant victory for Academy and the firearms industry. If you have any questions concerning this decision, or the defense of qualified civil liability actions pursuant to the PLCAA, please contact John F. Renzulli or Christopher Renzulli.