Eastern District of Pennsylvania Recognizes Split in Authority Regarding Whether a Claim-By-Claim Analysis Under the PLCAA is Warranted

bullets-1556142_960_720Today, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania addressed the proper interpretation of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and the exceptions contained therein.  In Ramos v. Wal-Mart Stores, No. 516-cv-00304, District Judge Joseph Leeson specifically recognized a split in authority regarding whether a claim-by-claim analysis under the PLCAA is warranted.  Judge Leeson focused on the Act’s use of the term “action” as opposed to “claim” when assessing whether a plaintiff only needs to meet one of the exceptions to the Act in order to avoid PLCAA immunity.  While Judge Leeson did not reach a decision on the issue, his opinion identifies a split in authority and clearly invites future plaintiffs to argue that general negligence or nuisance claims can survive so long as any exception to the Act is met.

Background

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit in state court alleging that, at three o’clock in the morning, Wal-Mart negligently sold ammunition to an intoxicated twenty-year old named Robert Jourdain.  Jourdain, along with two other acquaintances, then shot and killed three people over the course of the proceeding hour.  The parents and estate brought suit against Walmart as well as the individual employees who made the sale based on negligent sale, negligent entrustment, and negligence per se, alleging that the ammunition could not have been sold to a person under twenty-one.

Wal-Mart removed the case to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction and federal question jurisdiction.  In terms of diversity jurisdiction, Wal-Mart argued that the individual employees, who defeated diversity, were fraudulently joined because they were not involved with the sale.  With respect to federal question jurisdiction, Wal-Mart argued that this case belongs in a small category of cases “that are deemed to arise under federal law despite not having a federal cause of action.”  See Gunn v. Minton, 133 S. Ct. 1059 (2013).

“Action” vs. “Claim”

In holding that there was no diversity jurisdiction, District Judge Joseph Leeson refused to consider affidavits submitted by the individual defendants that contradicted the allegation that they were personally involved in the sale of the ammunition.  Further, Judge Leeson ruled, even if the affidavits were considered, these individual defendants could still be held liable for negligently training the cashier who conducted the sale.

Most importantly, Judge Leeson rejected the argument that the PLCAA barred such a negligence claim against the individual defendants.  Wal-Mart argued that the individual defendants could not have “knowingly violated” 18 U.S.C. 922(b)(1) (prohibiting the sale of ammunition to persons under twenty-one) or “negligently entrusted” ammunition to Jourdain if they did not personally participate in the sale.  In examining this argument, Judge Leeson explained that:

[I]n Defendants’ view, a claim against Everett or Javier for failing to properly train the cashier would not fit into any of the PLCAA’s exceptions.  This argument assumes that the PLCAA applies on a claim-by-claim basis, requiring every claim within a case to find its own exception to avoid being blocked by the Act.  However, the text of the Act suggests that its applicability may instead depend upon the nature of the case as a whole, rather than the nature of each individual claim.  This would mean that if the sum of the allegations made in a particular case triggers one of the Act’s exceptions, the entire case is exempt from its scope.  

Judge Leeson cited to the fact that the PLCAA does not prohibit a party from bringing specifics claims but from brining a “qualified civil liability action” which is defined as a “civil action or proceeding or administrative proceeding.”  See 15 U.S.C. § 7902(a), 7903(5)(A).  Citing Rule 2 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Judge Leeson concludes that the term action “is often understood as a reference to a case as a whole, rather than to an individual claim.”  Judge Leeson then notes that the listed exceptions refer to “actions” and that Section 7903(5)(A)(iii)(I)-(II) refers to “any case.”

“The fact that these two examples consist of ‘cases,’ not individual claims, suggests that if there are allegations present in a case that a defendant violated state or federal law, the case is exempt from the Act.”  Judge Leeson cited to the decisions in Corporan v. Wal-Mart, 2016 WL 3881341 (D. Kan. July 18, 2016) and Chiapperini v. Gander Mountain Co., 13 N.Y.S.3d 777 (N.Y. County Sup. Ct. 2014), to support this proposition.

However, Judge Leeson noted that other recent decisions have held that the Act applies on a claim-by-claim basis and prohibits individual claims that do not meet its exceptions.  See Delana v. CED Sales, Inc., 486 S.W.3d 316 (Mo. 2016); Estate of Kim v. Coxe, 295 P.3d 380, 388 (Alaska 2013).  Judge Leeson then noted that “while the term ‘action’ may be most commonly understood to refer to a case, rather than an individual claim, the term is sometimes used instead as shorthand for a single ‘cause of action.’”

Holding

Ultimately, Judge Leeson did not decide which interpretation of the Act is correct.  Instead, he held that the issue being addressed on a motion to remand is whether the plaintiffs have stated a “colorable claim” against the individual defendants, “not whether they can ultimately prevail.”  “The fact that there is some difference of opinion about whether such a claim would be viable means that the claim is not ‘wholly insubstantial and frivolous’” as “any uncertainties as to the current state of controlling substantive law [must be resolved] in favor of the plaintiff.”  As such, Judge Lesson held that the individual defendants were not fraudulently joined and the matter was remanded.

(In terms of removal based on federal question jurisdiction, the Court held that Wal-Mart did not meet the four-part test articulated in Gunn, rejecting an attempt to use the Gun Control Act to confer federal jurisdiction and noting that whether the sale of the ammunition violated federal law “may be of substantial significance to the parties, but not to the federal system.”)

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Danny Lallis (852x1280) (3)

Written by Danny C. Lallis

Danny is a Partner with Pisciotti Malsch, and his practice includes appeals, product liability, and commercial litigation.



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