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Estate of Charlot v. Bushmaster Firearms

June 25, 2009

ESTATE OF PASCAL CHARLOT ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
BUSHMASTER FIREARMS, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Emmet G. Sullivan United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiffs brought this case under the District of Columbia Assault Weapons Manufacturing Strict Liability Act ("SLA" or "the Act"), D.C. Code §§ 7-2551.01 to 7-2551.03 (2001). The Court stayed the case pending a final decision on the constitutionality of the SLA by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. See District of Columbia v. Beretta ("Beretta V"), 940 A.2d 163 (D.C. 2008), cert. denied, 129 S.Ct. 1579 (2009).*fn1 In the interim, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act ("PLCAA"), 15 U.S.C. §§ 7901 et seq., and defendant filed a second motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). Defendant's new motion argues that the PLCAA foreclosed or preempted plaintiffs' SLA action. Plaintiffs respond that their suit falls within one of the exceptions of the PLCAA, and also that the PLCAA is unconstitutional under United States v. Klein, 80 U.S. 128 (1871). The United States has intervened to defend the constitutionality of the federal statute. Pending before the Court is defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings. After careful consideration of defendant's motion, plaintiffs' opposition, defendant's reply, amicus filings the entire record, and applicable case law, this Court GRANTS defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Factual History

When presented with a motion on the pleadings, the Court "accepts the facts as alleged in the complaint." Whiteing v. District of Columbia, 521 F. Supp. 2d 15, 17 (D.D.C. 2007). Plaintiffs are the personal representatives of the Estate of Pascal Charlot. Plaintiffs allege that Charlot was shot and killed with a Bushmaster XM-15 E2S .223 caliber semiautomatic assault rifle ("rifle") in Washington, D.C., on October 3, 2002. Compl. ¶ 2. John Allen Mohammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were charged with the shooting.*fn2 Id. The defendant, Bushmaster Firearms, Inc. ("Bushmaster" or "defendant"), is the gun manufacturer that produces the rifle. Id. Plaintiffs bring this action under the SLA.

Plaintiffs allege that Bushmaster manufactured the weapon at issue, put it into the stream of interstate commerce, and sold it directly to Bull's Eye Shooter Supply of Tacoma, Washington ("Bull's Eye"). Id. at ¶ 21. Bull's Eye received the weapon on July 2, 2002. Plaintiffs further allege that the rifle used to kill Charlot was manufactured after October 7, 1994, the day the SLA became applicable to machine guns. Id. ¶ 26. Plaintiffs state that the weapon was recovered by police, who confirmed that Charlot was shot and killed with the Bushmaster rifle. Id. ¶ 13. According to the SLA, a machine gun is defined as a "firearm which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot automatically more than one shot without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger." D.C. Code § 7-2501.01(10). Plaintiffs allege that the weapon used to kill Charlot falls within this definition of machine gun, as it can readily be converted to shoot more than 12 shots without manual reloading. Bushmaster markets 40 round magazines as available for sale to the general public for only $24.95. These magazines are used to convert the Bushmaster assault rifle to permit the firing of 40 rounds of ammunition without pausing to reload manually.

Compl. ¶ 27.

B. Procedural History

Plaintiffs originally filed this case in Superior Court of the District of Columbia ("Superior Court") on October 1, 2003.

Defendant removed the action to this Court on December 5, 2003 pursuant to diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. On January 21, 2004, defendant filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings; plaintiffs filed a motion for partial summary judgment on February 20, 2004. On May 5, 2004, after the D.C. Court of Appeals decided District of Columbia v. Beretta ("Beretta II"), 847 A.2d 1127 (D.C. 2004), this Court, sua sponte, ordered the parties to file simultaneous pleadings regarding the applicability of the rationale of Beretta II to the issue raised in this case. After a motions hearing held on July 29, 2004, defendant, with the support of amici, urged the Court to grant a stay in this case until after Beretta II became final. On September 10, 2004, after a second motions hearing, the Court stayed the case pending final resolution of Beretta II and ordered the parties to keep this Court apprised of any developments. On October 10, 2005, following the Supreme Court's denial of certiorari in District of Columbia v. Beretta ("Beretta III"), 872 A.2d 633 (D.C. 2005), cert. denied 546 U.S. 928 (2005), this Court ordered the parties to file a joint proposal for further proceedings.

On November 15, 2005, the Court held a status hearing at which plaintiffs asked the Court to temporarily lift the stay for the limited purpose of enabling them to file a motion for leave to file an amended complaint. The Court granted plaintiffs' request and also lifted the stay to allow defendant to brief the applicability of the PLCAA. The Court set a briefing schedule -- including filings from amici, the District of Columbia and The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute, Inc., and the United States -- that permitted filings through February 24, 2006. The stay remained in effect as to all other matters. After a motions hearing on April 18, 2006, the Court took defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings under advisement. While the motions were under advisement, another iteration of Beretta was proceeding through the District of Columbia court system. See District of Columbia v. Beretta ("Beretta IV"), 2006 WL 1892023 (D.C. Super. May 22, 2006); see also infra Section I.C. Given the potential impact of Beretta IV on this case, the Court again stayed consideration of the pending motions to await the final resolution of Beretta IV. The appeal in Beretta IV was decided by the D.C. Court of Appeals on January 10, 2008. Beretta V, 940 A.2d at 163.

On February 7, 2008, after the parties jointly recommended supplemental briefing to address the applicability of Beretta V, this Court denied defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings without prejudice and ordered the parties to file any potentially dispositive motions thirty days after the decision in Beretta V became final. The Court set a briefing schedule for the motions, including an opportunity for the United States, as intervenor, to file its submission. Beretta V became final on March 9, 2009 when the Supreme Court denied certiorari. See 129 S.Ct. at 1579.

C. The Many Iterations of Beretta

Beretta was originally filed in 2002 in D.C. Superior Court. See District of Columbia v. Beretta ("Beretta I"), 2002 WL 31811717 (D.C. Super. Dec. 16, 2002). Plaintiffs brought an action seeking compensatory damages and other equitable relief for conduct by defendants that plaintiffs alleged gave rise to liability under common law claims of negligence and public nuisance, as well as under the SLA. Defendant filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings seeking dismissal of the suit. The Superior Court entered judgment for defendant and dismissed the action, finding the SLA to be an unconstitutional exercise of extraterritorial regulation by the District. See id. at *48.

On appeal, the D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that the SLA is constitutional and allowing the individual plaintiffs to advance to discovery. See Beretta II, 847 A.2d at 1151. An en banc hearing of the D.C. Court of Appeals vacated the panel's opinion and superceded the panel's decision. See Beretta III, 872 A.2d at 633. Beretta III held, inter alia, that (1) the SLA confers a right of action on individuals who are injured, but not on the District; (2) the SLA does not violate the Commerce Clause; (3) and the SLA does not violate due process. The D.C. Court of Appeals remanded the case to the Superior Court, but before the case was heard on remand in Superior Court, Congress enacted the PLCAA.

On remand, the Superior Court granted defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings and held that plaintiffs' causes of action under the SLA fall squarely within the PLCAA's definition of a "qualified civil liability action" and did not fall within the PLCAA's predicate exception. See Beretta IV, 2006 WL 1892023, at *9. The Superior Court also concluded that the PLCAA was a constitutional exercise of congressional authority. On appeal, the D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the Superior Court and held, inter alia, that (1) the District's and individuals' SLA causes of action were a "qualified civil liability action" barred by the PLCAA, and (2) the PLCAA did not violate separation of powers by usurping a judicial function and directing a court to take a specific position in the pending SLA action. See Beretta V, 940 A.2d at 169-74. The Supreme Court denied certiorari on March 9, 2009. See 129 S.Ct. at 1579.

D. The D.C. Court of Appeals Holdings in Beretta V

In Beretta V, the plaintiffs conceded that "if their action is not one alleging 'violat[ion by the defendants of] a . . . statute applicable to the sale or marketing of' a firearm, 15 U.S.C. § 7903(5)(A)(iii), then it is a 'qualified civil liability action' that must be dismissed, unless the Constitution dictates otherwise." Beretta V, 940 A.2d at 169 (footnote omitted).

Plaintiffs argued that they met the predicate exception*fn3 because their complaint alleged that the defendant "knowingly violated" the SLA, a statute that by its express terms "'appli[es] to the sale or marketing of' a class of firearms." Id. at 169. The D.C. Court of Appeals rejected this argument, noting that it had difficulty seeing how defendants "may be said to have 'violated' the SLA." Id. at 170. The court further reasoned:

In ordinary language, a "violation" is understood to mean "an infringement or transgression," and a violation of a law to mean "[a]n infraction or breach of the law." Plain meaning, therefore, would seem to require the law in question to contain a ...


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