Alaska PLCAA Decision

The Supreme Court of Alaska Upholds Constitutionality of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and Holds That Negligence Claims Arising From the Theft of a Firearm Do Not Meet an Enumerated Exception to the Act

On February 22, 2013, the Supreme Court of Alaska issued its decision in Estate of Kim v. Coxe, No. S-14077, 2013 Alas. LEXIS 18 (Alaska Feb. 22, 2013), which affirmed the constitutionality of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, 15 U.S.C. § 7901, et seq. (“PLCAA” or the “Act”) and held that the Act prohibits lawsuits against a manufacturer or seller based on general negligence theories.  In fact, the Alaska Supreme Court specifically held that the theft of a firearm from a retailer “does not support liability under claims excepted from the PLCAA.”

Factual Background

On August 2, 2006, Jason Coday entered Defendant’s gun shop (Rayco Sales).  All three persons present in Rayco that afternoon (owner Ray Coxe, employee Bill Driver, and customer Stan Buckham) testified that they did not notice any behavior from Coday to indicate danger or potential for violence.  After Coday inquired about purchasing a .22 caliber rifle for target shooting, Coxe suggested a used Ruger rifle priced at $195.  Coday ultimately stated that he would have to think about the purchase and appeared to be leaving the store.  When Coxe left the store front, Coday then stole the rifle and left two $100 bills on the counter.  When Coxe realized the rifle was missing, he immediately reported the rifle stolen.  Two days later, Coday shot and killed Simone Kim with the stolen rifle.

The plaintiff brought a wrongful death action against the gun shop and alleged that Coxe had negligently provided Coday the firearm.  Defendant moved for summary judgment based upon the PLCAA, which prohibits certain civil actions for damages against a manufacturer or seller of a firearm in connection with a third-party’s criminal or unlawful misuse of the firearm.  After oral argument, the trial court granted the motion.  On appeal, the plaintiff argued that (1) the PLCAA was unconstitutional; (2) the PLCAA does not immunize gun dealers from their own negligent acts; and (3) there were disputes of material fact relevant to the claims excepted from the PLCAA – negligent entrustment, negligence per se, and knowing violations of laws applicable to the sale or marketing of firearms.

Summary of the Decision

First, the Alaska Supreme Court flat out rejected the plaintiff’s claim that the PLCAA cannot immunize gun dealers from their own negligent acts.  After examining the text of the Act and the legislative history, the Court explained that “[t]he PLCAA expressly preempts state common law by requiring that state courts immediately dismiss qualified civil liability actions” and that “Congress’s purpose and intent was to bar any qualified civil liability action not falling within a statutory exception.”  Accordingly, the plaintiff was prohibited from bringing general negligence claims against the gun shop.

Second, the Alaska Supreme Court held that the PLCAA is constitutional.  Consistent with every other court to consider constitutional challenges to the Act, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments that the PLCAA violated the Tenth Amendment, separation of powers, due process, and equal protection.

Third, the plaintiff’s claims that their action fit within the exceptions to the act – knowing violation of firearms law and negligence per se (15 U.S.C. § 7903(5)(A)(ii)-(iii)) and negligent entrustment (15 U.S.C. § 7903(5)(A)(ii)) – were addressed.  The Alaska Supreme Court held that the “[t]heft of a firearm does not support liability under claims excepted from the PLCAA.”  Plaintiff argued that a jury could find that the defendant violated various laws related to the sale of a firearm (such as requiring a background check and completion of a transaction record form).  The Alaska Supreme Court echoed the trial court by noting the illogicality of requiring a gun shop to perform a background check and complete a federal firearms form before having a gun stolen.  Thus, it was held that “[t]he more logical conclusion is that a firearm theft precludes a dealer’s liability under the PLCAA’s knowing violation of statute and negligence per se exceptions.”  Similarly, the Alaska Supreme Court held that the plaintiff’s “negligent entrustment claim cannot survive under Coxe’s version of the events – a firearm’s theft.”  Notably, the Court addressed the negligent entrustment exception to the PLCAA by analyzing the common law of Alaska.

Despite upholding the constitutionality of the PLCAA and confirming that the theft of a firearm from a gun shop does not come within any of the enumerated exceptions to the Act, the case was remanded on a very narrow ground.  In opposition to the defendant’s motion, the plaintiff had submitted an affidavit from an expert who opined that the lack of security measures at Rayco and missing firearms discovered in a 2008 audit “violated the intent, letter and spirit of the law.”  During oral argument, the defendant’s attorney argued that such evidence is inadmissible.  The Alaska Supreme Court noted that the defense raised this issue regarding prior bad act evidence for the first time during oral argument and that the plaintiff did not have the opportunity to respond.  Thus, the case was remanded to allow the plaintiff an chance to present arguments related to the evidentiary issues regarding the expert witness affidavit and whether the affidavits may be admissible under Alaska Evidence Rule 404(b)(1) or under another rule.

Potential Effect of the Estate of Kim Decision

Unsurprisingly, the Brady Center, which served as co-counsel for the plaintiff, hailed the decision in Estate of Kim as a “landmark victory”  and one  where the Alaska Supreme Court “reject[ed] the gun lobby [and] sided with the Brady Center.”   This press release is the usual Brady Center spin as the summary of the decision was purposefully imprecise and rife with misleading statements.  The inescapable reality is that the ruling in Estate of Kim is a decided victory for proponents of the PLCAA and the gun industry.  It is important that the public be made aware of the actual holding in Estate of Kim to combat the misinformation provided by the Brady Center.

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