Divided justices: Statute provides immunity to firearms sellers

Holding that state statute immunizes firearms sellers from damages claims brought after a third party misuses a gun purchased from their stores, a divided Indiana Supreme Court has dismissed a series of damages claims against an Indianapolis gun store. The justices did allow a claim for equitable relief to continue.

In October 2011, Demetrious Martin and Tarus Blackburn went to KS&E Sports in Indianapolis to browse through the store’s collection of firearms. Blackburn, acting as a straw purchaser, bought a Smith & Wesson handgun, but, immediately upon leaving the store, gave the gun to Martin, a convicted felon who could not legally purchase or possess a firearm.

Two months later, Martin opened fire against Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Officer Dwayne Runnels using the gun Blackburn had purchased for him, prompting Runnels to return fire and ultimately kill Martin. For his part, Runnels suffered serious physical injuries and financial damages.

Two years later, Runnels filed a complaint against KS&E, Blackburn and Edward Ellis, director of KS&E, raising claims for negligence, conspiracy and public nuisance.  Runnels’ complaint alleged that KS&E proximately caused him harm by its sale of the gun to Blackburn and its entrustment to him, and ultimately Martin. The officer also sought to “pierce the corporate veil” and hold Ellis personally liable for KS&E’s wrongdoing.

Ellis & KS&E moved for judgment on the pleadings under Indiana Trial Rule 12(C), arguing that Indiana Code 34-12-3-3(2) granted them immunity. The Marion Superior Court denied the motion, and a divided Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed, though it found that I.C. 34-12-3-3(2) “limits the seller’s exposure to liability by barring plaintiffs from holding him accountable for the portion of damages that results from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a firearm by a third party.”

The high court was similarly divided in its Monday opinion, which affirmed and reversed in part the Court of Appeals’ decision with a 3-2 vote. In the majority opinion, Justice Geoffrey Slaughter wrote I.C. 34-12-3-3(2), which bars action against a firearms seller for “recovery of damages resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a firearm … by a third party,” functions as an immunity provision for sellers such as KS&E, regardless of the seller’s culpability.

“The statute does not mince words,” Slaughter wrote. “If a plaintiff files a ‘groundless’ action – i.e., one that violates the statutory ban – ‘the court shall dismiss the claims or action and award to the defendant and reasonable attorney’s fee and costs incurred in defending the claims or action.’ Taken together, these provisions prescribe an immunity from suit.”

But Slaughter also noted that the immunity conferred is not absolute, but instead only offers immunity for damages claims, not other claims, such as those for equitable relief. Thus, the majority voted to dismiss Runnels’ negligence claims because they sought only damages as a result of his injuries from the misuse of the firearm by Martin, a third party.

Similarly, the majority also dismissed Runnels’ civil-conspiracy claim, which alleged that he sustained injuries as a result of a civil conspiracy among KS&E, its owners and employees and Blackburn to make a profit. Runnels’ claim does not allege that Martin was part of the conspiracy, Slaughter wrote, but instead alleges that KS&E was conspiring to boost profits.

However, the majority allowed Runnels’ public-nuisance claim to survive because it seeks equitable relief, which is not barred under the statute. Runnels alleged that at least 529 guns that KS&E sold between 1996 and 2000 were traced to and recovered from crimes, an allegation that is sufficient to plead a claim for public nuisance, Slaughter said. The court held that such claims could be brought against a defendant in City of Gary ex rel King v. Smith & Wesson Corp., 801 N.E.2d 1222, 1246 (Ind. 2003).

Finally, the court rejected Runnels’ claims against Ellis and the officer’s argument that I.C. 34-12-3-3(2) is preempted by federal law and is unconstitutional.

Justice Robert Rucker both concurred and dissented in part, writing in a separate opinion joined by Chief Justice Loretta Rush that he agreed the trial court erred in denying KS&E’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. However, Rucker dissented from the majority’s analysis that “the unambiguous statute operates as a limited immunity provision insulating a firearms seller from a suit for damages caused by a third party’s misuse of a firearm, regardless of the seller’s culpability.”

“It appears to me the statute was designed to protect innocent and unknowing gun sellers from the acts of third parties,” Rucker wrote. “The legislature could not have intended to protect gun sellers from their own illegal acts.”

The case is KS&E Sports and Edward J. Ellis v. Dwayne H. Runnels, 49S02-1606-CT-349.

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