Early Dismissal


When Judge Robert Ruehlman dismissed Cincinnati's gun lawsuit, a plaintiff's attorney hired by the city to handle the case called the decision "premature." He complained that the city had not been allowed to examine industry documents that might have helped support its arguments.

But the main problem with the case was not a lack of evidence. It was the fundamental absurdity of trying to blame gun makers for homicides and suicides committed by other people.

That defect, which is shared by the gun lawsuits that 27 other local governments have filed in the last year, cannot be rectified by digging through the files of Beretta et al. Nor is it likely to be overcome by appealing Ruehlman's decision, as the Cincinnati City Council recently decided to do.

The city's lawsuit demanded compensation for municipal costs associated with shootings in Cincinnati. Ruehlman, a judge in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas, found that the city had failed to state a cause of action, which means it could not recover damages even if it proved every allegation in its complaint.

That devastating conclusion reflects the fact that the cities involved in gun litigation are making up the law as they go along. Cincinnati alleged, for example, that the defendants were liable for manufacturing a defective product. But "rather than identifying a specific product, a specific defect, an identified manufacturer, and a specific injury with a causal connection," Ruehlman noted, "the complaint instead aggregates anonymous claims with no specificity whatever."

The judge added that "neither the law of Ohio nor any other jurisdiction of which the Court is aware" allows plaintiffs to recover damages for a product defect based on "the intentional use of a product to accomplish an intended result such as homicide or suicide." This is no small matter, since just such a bogus claim is at the heart of the suits filed by New Orleans and several other cities.

Ruehlman quickly disposed of Cincinnati's other product liability claims. In response to the argument that the defendants were negligent because they did not prevent shootings, he observed that gun makers have no control over "the criminal or reckless misuse of firearms." As for the city's assertion that gun manufacturers should be held liable for failing to warn the public about the risks posed by their products, he noted that "the risks associated with the use of a firearm are open and obvious and matters of common knowledge."

Partly for that reason, Ruehlman found the city's allegation of fraud by the gun industry to be without merit. He also noted that the city had failed to cite any false statements by the defendants, let alone show that anyone had been injured by relying on them.

Ruehlman also rejected the claim, pioneered by Chicago and imitated by other cities, that gun makers create a "public nuisance" by providing weapons that are used in crimes. "Public nuisance," he noted, "simply does not apply to the design, manufacture and distribution of a lawful product."

In case the infirmity of every single count against the gun manufacturers was not enough to justify dismissal, Ruehlman noted two other fatal weaknesses. "It is well established," he wrote, "that a plaintiff may not recover derivative damages for injuries to remote third parties, as the City is attempting to do here." In any event, he said, the city is not authorized to seek compensation for money spent on police and other services it has a duty to provide.

In addition to money, Cincinnati's lawsuit asked for an injunction ordering changes in the way guns are manufactured and distributed. Ruehlman rightly condemned that request as an attempt not only to legislate through the courts but to impose one jurisdiction's rules on the entire country.

"The city's Complaint is an improper attempt to have this Court substitute its judgment for that of the legislature," Ruehlman wrote. "Moreover, the City's request that this court abate or enjoin the defendants' lawful sale and distribution of their products outside the City of Cincinnati exceeds the scope of its municipal powers and, to the extent it asks this court to regulate commercial conduct lawful in other states, violates the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution."

In other words, after you strip away the trumped-up charges and specious reasoning, you have a power grab of breathtaking arrogance. A decision to reject such overreaching is hardly "premature." If anything, it's long overdue.