The five finalist cases for Public Justice’s 2019 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award include landmark cases dealing with school negligence of students with disabilities, a twenty-year fight against Dark Money in politics, illegal straw purchasing of firearms used in a murder, industrial pollution in the San Francisco Bay, and factory farms ruining the quality of life of low-income communities of color.
The award celebrates and recognizes the work of an attorney or team of attorneys working on behalf of individuals and groups that have suffered grave injustice or abuse. It will be presented at the organization’s Annual Gala and Awards Dinner on Monday, July 29 in San Diego. Here are the five finalist cases for the award:
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On April 28, 2013, Kirsten Englund stopped at a scenic overlook on the Oregon coast and was shot and killed by a mentally ill man armed with firearms that he acquired through online purchases. The firearms he used were bought by the shooter from an online dealer who sells guns across the country. In this case, the guns were collected from a local pawn shop by the shooter’s mother.
When someone other than the true purchaser of a firearm provides their name, completes the background check, takes possession of the firearm and then hands it off to the true purchaser, such actions constitute a straw sale, which is illegal.
Ms. Englund’s family alleged that on three separate occasions over a period of less than three months, the shooter purchased semi-automatic firearms online from defendant firearm dealer J&G Sales, which transferred those firearms to a second defendant firearm dealer, World Pawn Exchange, which then transferred the firearms to the shooter’s mother and ultimately into the possession of the shooter himself. The Englund case sought to fill a significant gap in existing jurisprudence by establishing that online firearms dealers are subject to the same standard of care as firearms dealers operating from physical locations.
In the wake of this shooting, the dealer defendants sought refuge from legal liability under the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a federal statute that largely pre-empts state law claims against firearms companies. The defendants argued that neither could be liable for the death resulting from these online straw sales because one dealer made the sale but did not have responsibility for the background check, and the other dealer had responsibility for the background check but did not make the sale.
The settlements, the only ones obtained in U.S. litigation relating to online straw sales, required the dealer defendants to make specific, meaningful changes to their firearm sales practices that are designed to ensure firearms are provided only to the actual purchaser and to make it less likely that any other family will suffer a similar tragedy. For the first time, dealers involved in the online sale and transfer of firearms were held to account for their role in a tragic death. Earlier in the case, the Englund family had also obtained a $400,000 settlement with the shooter’s mother – believed to be the largest monetary settlement obtained from an individual straw purchaser.
In addition to these important business reforms and financial recovery, the Englund litigation produced comprehensive written opinions denying the defendants’ motions for dismissal and for summary judgment based on PLCAA. These decisions were the first in the nation to establish the precedent that firearm dealers are subject to the same principles of negligence law whether they sell firearms in person or online.
Team: Julie Goldsmith Reiser, Molly J. Bowen, and Sally Handmaker Guido, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, Washington, D.C.; Raymond M. Sarola, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, Philadelphia, PA; Jonathan E. Lowy, Erin Davis, and Josh Scharff, Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Washington, D.C.; Thomas D’Amore, D’Amore Law Group, Portland, Ore.
The complete list of finalists for the Public Justice 2019 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award can be accessed here.