In Ryan v. Hughes-Ortiz, 81 Mass. App. Ct. 90 (Jan. 6, 2012), the decedent, a convicted felon, was killed by an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound he sustained while trying to return a gun he had stolen to its owner’s previous hiding place. Plaintiff, the administratrix of decedent’s estate, sued the gun owner and its manufacturer in Massachusetts Superior Court asserting claims of negligence and wrongful death against both the owner and manufacturer, as well as breach of the implied warranty of merchantability (the Massachusetts nearequivalent of strict liability) and violation of Mass. Gen. L. ch. 93A (the Massachusetts unfair and deceptive practices statute) against the manufacturer alone. Plaintiff’s claims against the manufacturer alleged that the gun and gun case were defectively designed because the case caused the loaded gun to discharge through the case and the gun itself was likely to discharge unintentionally. The trial court granted summary judgment for both defendants, and plaintiff appealed to the Massachusetts Appeals Court.
Plaintiff’s appeal raised an issue of first impression in Massachusetts--application of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (“PLCAA”), 15 U.S.C. §§ 7901-7903 (2006), which provides immunity to firearms manufacturers and dealers from any civil action brought by any person for damages or other relief resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a firearm by the person or a third party. Before analyzing whether plaintiff’s claim was barred by the PLCAA, the court first noted that it would not consider plaintiff’s argument, raised for the first time on appeal, that summary judgment should not have been granted against that portion of her claim targeting the design of the gun case because the PLCAA applies only to firearms, ammunition and their components.
Expressing no opinion as to whether the PLCAA would preclude a future plaintiff from bringing claims involving the interaction between products covered by the statute and others not covered, the court held that plaintiff’s claims against the manufacturer were barred by the act. The court found that five of the six requirements for applicability of the statute were easily met--plaintiff’s suit was (1) a civil action, (2) brought by a person, (3) against a manufacturer, (4) of firearms, and (5) for damages. The only remaining issue was whether the suit “resulted from the criminal or unlawful misuse of [a firearm] by the person or a third party.” The statute defines “unlawful misuse” to mean “conduct that violates a statute, ordinance or regulation as it relates to the use of [a firearm].” Here, although no criminal charges were brought against decedent in connection with the incident, his possession of a firearm and ammunition after having been convicted of a felony was in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), thus constituting “criminal or unlawful misuse” under the PLCAA. For the same reason, the “design defect exception” to the statute did not apply. That exception provides that the PLCAA will not foreclose claims where the harm results directly from a defect in design or manufacture of the product when used as intended or in a reasonably foreseeable manner, except in cases where the discharge of the firearm was caused by a volitional act that constitutes a criminal offense.