The family of 24-year-old Jessica Ghawi, a victim in the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, is faced with more than $200,000 in legal costs after a federal judge ordered them to pay attorney’s fees for four ammunition dealers the family attempted to sue.
“They have taken our daughter, and now they want to take our worldly goods,” Lonnie Phillips told MSNBC’s Tamron Hall in a televised interview earlier this week. “I think that’s a little much.”
Despite the shocking headline, legal experts told NBC Bay Area that the outcome of this case is not all that surprising.
The bill may be an exorbitant sum at face value, but it’s not that high for a case like this, said Robyn Thomas, Executive Director of the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
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“You’d be shocked by how quickly fees can go up very, very high [with] the amount of time that’s spent preparing these lawsuits and working on their defense,” she said.
Thomas added that the case was dismissed before a trial could take place thanks to the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA, a federal law passed by Congress and signed by George W. Bush in 2005.
“What PLCAA does is it provides very broad, blanket immunity from civil lawsuits for both gun manufacturers and gun dealers,” she said. “This is one example of a situation where somebody has tried to address liability, to go after bad actions of a dealer or manufacturer and PLCAA kept them from being able to do so.”
The law makes the gun industry stand out from other industries, said Deep Gulasekaram, a second amendment expert and law professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law.
“It is certainly odd and unique,” he said. “There are very few, if any, other industries that have this sort of blanket shield.”
Thanks to the federal law, cases like the Phillips’ face an uphill battle. That is, if they make it to the courtroom, he added.
But that doesn’t make the feat impossible, Gulasekaram added. There are exceptions to the law and theories of liability that lie underneath those exceptions, he added.
One of those exceptions is “negligent entrustment,” or the selling or distribution of a weapon or ammunition that the dealer knew or should have known would be used in a criminal manner.
That’s the argument the Phillips family tried to make in their lawsuit, which alleges that the online ammunition retailers sold convicted shooter, James Holmes, some of the ammunition used in the attack even though he was a “patently dangerous homicidal man.”
“Their point here is that when someone is purchasing thousands of rounds of assault weapon ammunition, perhaps the seller in this case might have wanted to think twice about doing that,” Gulasekaram said.
Gulasekaram calls that a “colorable claim” and one that could have poked holes in the shield law had the Phillips family had their chance in court.
Federal Judge Richard P. Matsch disagreed, however, and dismissed the case calling it an act made for “political purposes” meant to “propagandize the public and stigmatize the defendants.”
Then he ordered the Phillips family to foot the bill or the retailers.
“Those who ignite a fire should be responsible for the cost of suppressing it before it becomes a conflagration,” he wrote in the order this June.
Ultimately, the tally of costs accrued in the Phillips’ $200,000 bill includes everything from attorney’s fees to travel, and even small charges like postage.
The family recently dropped an appeal of the judge’s order. Any additional legal fees would force them into bankruptcy, they said.