Institute for Legal, Legislative and Educational Action
The parents of an Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting victim said they felt revictimized after being misled about the consequences of a 2014 lawsuit they filed with the help of a leading gun-control group.
Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, who lost their daughter Jessica Ghawi in the horrible attack, said they were forced to file bankruptcy after being left on the hook for the legal fees associated with the case backed by Brady United Against Gun Violence. They claimed the group did not fully communicate the risk that they would be forced to pay for the defendants’ lawyers if they lost the longshot case. After the judge ruled against them, calling the case to hold ammo dealers liable for the shooting “meritless” at one point, the couple was ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars from their own pocket.
“We lost three years of our life,” Lonnie Phillips told The Colorado Sun on Tuesday.
Mike Stankiewicz, a Brady spokesperson, disputed the Phillips claim.
“Brady always informs our clients of the financial risks involved in the cases they file, especially when filing in a state like Colorado that has a gun industry special protection law that requires victims who bring about these lawsuits to pay for attorney and other fees when unsuccessful,” Stankiewicz told The Reload. “That was done in this case and in every single other case Brady has litigated on behalf of gun violence victims.”
The accusation that Brady misled plaintiffs it recruited into a longshot case filed for mainly symbolic purposes may harm the group’s ability to file similar actions in the future. While there have been a few high-profile settlements, such as the one between Sandy Hook parents and insurers of the defunct Remington Arms Company, in cases seeking to hold gun companies liable for the criminal acts committed by third parties with their weapons, the vast majority of such suits are tossed early on in the process. Cases like the ones the Phillips lost rarely generate more than headlines and sometimes result in plaintiffs being forced to pay the companies they sued.
Federal District Judge Richard P. Matsch dismissed the Phillips case against the companies that sold guns and ammunition to the shooter, calling it an “all conceivable claims attack on these internet sellers, attempting to destroy their legitimate businesses and invalidate the federal and state statutes protecting them.”
He further accused Brady of seeking publicity with the suit rather than pursuing an actionable claim against the companies.
“The injunctive relief requested is to stop all the defendants’ commercial activities until their business practices have been changed and approved by the court,” Judge Matsch wrote. “There is nothing in the record to indicate that the plaintiffs or the Brady Center, the apparent sponsor of this case, made any attempt to persuade the defendants to make any alterations of those practices before bringing this highly publicized lawsuit. It would be highly unlikely that the defendants would seek to emasculate their businesses to conform to an undefined standard of care that would have prevented a purchaser of their products from using them in a barbaric assault on innocent people in an entertainment venue.”
Judge Matsch ultimately accused Brady of using the case to smear the gun companies it was suing.
“It is apparent that this case was filed to pursue the political purposes of the Brady Center and, given the failure to present any cognizable legal claim, bringing these defendants into the Colorado court where the prosecution of James Holmes was proceeding appears to be more of an opportunity to propagandize the public and stigmatize the defendants than to obtain a court order,” he said in his order.
But Judge Matsch also assumed the Phillips would receive financial support from Brady given that the group supplied lawyers to represent the couple and promoted the case as their own in press releases.
“It may be presumed that whatever hardship is imposed on the individual plaintiffs by these awards against them may be ameliorated by the sponsors of this action in their name,” he wrote.
That wasn’t the case. Stankiewicz said Brady simply doesn’t have the funds to pay for the settlement against the couple or others in similar circumstances.
“Nonprofits like Brady do not have the financial funds to pay for unsuccessful suits that clients decide to bring, which is why we always make clear to clients the financial risks involved in these lawsuits,” Stankiewicz told The Reload. “Over the past 30 years Brady has won over $60 million for victims of gun violence. In this particular case, it was the gun industry defendants who decided to press to enforce a judgment against the unfortunate victims of horrific gun violence.”
The Phillips remain committed to suing the companies that sold the guns and ammo to the Aurora theater shooter, though. They are currently lobbying the Colorado legislature to repeal the law that protects gun companies from frivolous lawsuits.
“To have fee switching like that, where you can’t take the risk of going to court to do the right thing — the morally right thing — that’s not right,” Sandy Phillips told The Colorado Sun. “So we’ve been trying to get it changed, and I think this year we might have a really good shot at having that happen.”
Given the publicity surrounding the couple being forced to pay the gun companies’ legal fees and recent gains by Democrats in the Colorado legislature, it is more likely than ever that the law will be repealed.