A lawsuit filed by the city of Gary against 10 gun manufacturers nearly two decades ago will continue after the Indiana Court of Appeals last month ruled that a 2015 state law intended to terminate the case does not extinguish all of the city's legal claims.
Gary alleges that the gun manufacturers engaged in unlawful sales and marketing practices that contributed to increased crime in Gary during the late 1990s, and caused the city to incur significant costs for the resulting criminal investigations and prosecutions, according to court records.
The case has lingered in Indiana's court system since 1999 as various state and federal laws seemingly designed to shelter the gun manufacturers from civil liability were found by Hoosier judges to be inapplicable to Gary's claims.
In 2015, the Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly sought to do away with the city's case once and for all by enacting a statute, retroactive to 1999, barring lawsuits against gun manufacturers relating to the lawful design, manufacture, marketing or sale of a firearm, or the unlawful misuse of a firearm by a third party.
As a result, Lake Superior Judge John Sedia last year granted the gun manufacturers' request to dismiss the city's lawsuit based on the retroactive immunity statute enacted by now-Vice President Mike Pence.
However, in a 3-0 decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that the immunity law does not apply to the gun manufacturers' supposedly illegal marketing and sales practices alleged in Gary's lawsuit, including condoning straw purchases, failing to restrict sales to corrupt dealers and making false claims about gun safety.
"To the extent that the alleged damages may result from and the requested injunctive relief may relate to unlawful conduct, they are not barred by the immunity statute," wrote Judge Terry Crone, a South Bend native, on behalf of the appellate court.
The gun manufacturers now have until late June to decide whether to seek review of the appellate decision by the Indiana Supreme Court.
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Messages left for attorneys at the Merrillville law firm Burke Costanza and Carberry, which represents several of the gun manufacturers, were not immediately returned.
State Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, sponsor of the 2015 statute, said he fully expects the latest court ruling will be appealed.
"I'm sure everybody involved in this won't just sit still," he said. "I hope it does get put to rest."
Tomes said he doesn't understand how the courts can say gun manufacturers may be held liable for criminal activity, especially when both state and federal law make clear that they're not responsible for the intentional misuse of their products.
"I'm just kind of mystified by it," Tomes said. "It's just not a good precedent that we start doing this to any business that provides things that we all buy as consumers."
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she's pleased the court saw through the Legislature's "heavy-handed" tactics, and added that Gary looks forward to having its day in court.
"The city will be in a position to make a case that there are certain ways that certain dealers, certain manufacturers, market guns in certain places that creates a liability for them and against the community," Freeman-Wilson said.
"We'll get to try that on its merits, and that's all we were asking to do in the first place."