Is the recent increase in incidents of gun-related violence likely to give rise to an increase in products liability litigation involving firearms?

Firearms are a unique type of product in that their very purpose is to inflict harm, and if they failed to do so they would be considered defective. Although victims of accidental and criminal shootings may be searching for someone to compensate them for their losses, they are unlikely to achieve that goal by bringing a products liability action.

Recently, however, cities have been bringing suit against firearm manufacturers, arguing that gun makers are at least partly responsible for the costs of gun-related violence in major metropolitan areas. If these suits gain acceptance, suits by individual victims could also gain ground.

A different scenario is presented when a gun dealer sells a firearm to someone in violation of any applicable screening or waiting-period procedures. If that conduct ultimately leads to injury, the dealer may face liability, but it would not be on products liability grounds.

Seller or manufacturer liability is more likely in accidental shooting cases, such as when a safety mechanism fails to engage and the gun accidentally discharges. Incidents involving gun-related violence rarely involve such unintentional conduct, however, and the firearms that cause the injuries are performing exactly as intended by their design and manufacture.

Although the courts may be willing to entertain various new theories of liability in gun-related injury cases, they have demonstrated some reluctance to apply products liability law when intentional, criminal conduct is involved. More likely sources of liability in these cases are gun owners and dealers who fail to keep their weapons out of the hands of criminals or inexperienced users.