GARY — A long-running lawsuit seeking to hold 10 gun manufacturers financially responsible for the costs of 1990s gun violence in the city of Gary could proceed to trial after the Indiana Supreme Court declined Tuesday to intervene in the case.
By a 4-1 margin, the high court's justices refused to grant the gun manufacturers' request for transfer, thereby leaving intact a May 23 Court of Appeals ruling that revived the case — notwithstanding a 2015 state law aimed at halting it.
Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, a Crown Point native, was the sole justice voting to grant transfer, which would have vacated the Court of Appeals decision.
But, as is common in Supreme Court transfer orders, neither Slaughter nor any of the other justices explained the reasoning behind their votes.
Gary alleges 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 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.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said following the appellate court decision she was pleased the judges saw through the Legislature's "heavy-handed" tactics and 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."
The gun manufacturers, on the other hand, argued in their request for transfer that Gary "seeks to regulate by mandatory injunction the manner in which defendants market and sell the firearms they manufacture."
They said the immunity laws require Gary to allege specific statutory violations, but Gary's case is based only on the claim that the gun manufacturers "do not know, but should know, about unlawful acts by others."
A trial date in Lake Superior Court has not yet been set.
It's also not yet known whether state lawmakers again will try to enact a retroactive statute to halt the lawsuit when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 6 for a 10-week session.
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