PLCAA’s Constitutionality: Gustafson v. Springfield

  • Date:
  • August 25, 2021

Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Superior Court sitting en banc heard oral arguments in Gustafson v. Springfield Inc., et al. This is a rehearing en banc in a case in which the original appellate panel became the first court (at least of which I am aware) to declare the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) unconstitutional. The facts of the case are tragic – J.R., a 13-year-old boy, was visiting his 14-year-old friend’s house when the older boy grabbed his dad’s handgun. The 14-year-old proceeded to remove the magazine and believed that by doing so he was removing all the ammunition from the gun. Unfortunately, a bullet remained in the chamber and when the 14-year old pointed the gun at J.R. and pulled the trigger, he killed J.R. Subsequently, J.R.’s parents brought suit against the gun maker, asserting (among other things) common law negligence and products liability claims under Pennsylvania law. In brief, the argument was that Springfield could have and should have designed the gun in such a way that it could not fire when the magazine was removed or had other safety features designed to alert a user that the chamber remained loaded when the magazine was removed.

After the defendants moved to dismiss the case on the basis of PLCAA, the Gustafsons argued that PLCAA is unconstitutional. The trial court rejected the constitutional challenge and held that PLCAA foreclosed the lawsuit. To understand the constitutional challenge, some background on PLCAA is necessary. The Act generally bars civil lawsuits “brought by any person against a manufacturer or seller of a” firearm for any kind of relief “resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a qualified product by the person or a third party.” This cuts off a great many gun-related lawsuits. But note that not all gun-related harms fall within the Act. If the harm was caused not by a third party’s criminal or unlawful misuse, the Act doesn’t even come into play—think of a gun exploding in your hand as you fire it at a shooting range. And even if a lawsuit does come within PLCAA’s terms, it expressly allows claims in six circumstances. One exception that PLCAA expressly carves out is for traditional product defect claims. The product defect exception provides that PLCAA does not bar:

an action for death, physical injuries or property damage resulting directly from a defect in design or manufacture of the product, when used as intended or in a reasonably foreseeable manner, except that where the discharge of the product was caused by a volitional act that constituted a criminal offense, then such act shall be considered the sole proximate cause of any resulting death, personal injuries or property damage.

It’s not entirely clear which exact causes of action the product defect exception meant to bring back into the permissible claims fold. (Recall that the exploding gun would not have come within the scope of the Act in the first place.) One example proffered by Springfield’s counsel during oral argument was a technically unlawful act—say, firing at a shooting range before noon in a jurisdiction which bars shooting before that time—and a resultant exploding gun. In that case, the a lawsuit might technically fall within PLCAA’s general bar, but then be exempted under the product defect carve-out. One might question why, if not for this kind of narrow situation, the general bar refers to actions resulting from “criminal or unlawful misuse” while the product defect exception says claims are still allowed so long as the harm did not result from “a volitional act that constituted a criminal offense.”  

One of the main issues in the case on appeal was whether PLCAA’s provisions violate the Constitution. The Gustafons’ lawyer argued that PLCAA violates the 10th Amendment because it dictates the mechanism by which Pennsylvania regulates its tort law—by allowing for claims to proceed when a plaintiff alleges that the defendant violated a state statute but not when a plaintiff alleges that the defendant violated a common law duty (e.g., committed actionable negligence under state law). Congress cannot, in the words of the Gustafons’ counsel, command that states exercise their powers over tort law through the legislature and not the courts.

Another constitutional objection was that PLCAA was not authorized by Congress’s Commerce Clause powers because it does not regulate pre-existing economic activity. In the words of the challengers, it “targets non-market participants”—those who seek to sue from resulting gun harm, like the parents of the child accidentally killed with a gun in this case. One of the arrows in the quiver of the challengers is none other than NFIB v. Sebelius, in which a majority of the justices held that the Affordable Care Act was not a legitimate exercise of Congress’s Commerce Clause powers.

The challengers also contended that these constitutional concerns should lead to a narrow reading of PLCAA that would avoid them: namely, only those harms caused solely by the criminal misuse of a gun would be excluded, not those harms that are caused by both third party misuse and by gun maker/dealer tortious conduct.

It wasn’t clear to me from the oral arguments which way the judges are leaning, but the fact that the case went en banc suggests that a majority of the active judges want to take a closer look at the question.