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Can product manufacturers be liable for criminal use of products?

Products liability lawsuits can be based on a variety of issues that arise with the product. The product can be inherently dangerous, can be mislabeled or have inadequate warnings on its label to prevent injury, or can be altered by a seller after it is shipped from the manufacturer for sale. But one issue that arises less frequently in products liability law is whether the manufacturer or seller can be held responsible when a product is used in a criminal act and some characteristic of the product made it more likely to be used in such an act.

When a family member is the victim of a tragic incident such as a mass murder that occurs in a school, the survivors will be likely to look to any possible means of compensation for the loss of the loved one. Restitution is usually a punishment handed down through the criminal justice system, as opposed to suing a manufacturer or seller for damages due to wrongful death or other civil laws violations. But survivors of Sandy Hook victims are pursuing that avenue.

Remington manufactured the Bushmaster AR-15 used in the massacre at the school. Families of the victims have sued Remington, claiming that the gun was a dangerous product and should never have been available for sale to civilians due to its "overwhelming firepower."

In an effort to thwart that claim Remington has sought to move the lawsuit to federal court, where more protection may be available to the company against this claim.

Under federal law, a manufacturer is generally protected from liability for criminal use of its products. There is, however, an exception known as "negligent entrustment" that allows a suit to go forward when the manufacturer knew, or should have known, that the weapon could be used to pose an injury risk to third parties. The theory in this case is that the AR-15 is meant for military use and should never have been sold to the mother of the young man who used it to kill and injure the victims at the school.

Even without the addition of criminal penalties to products liability cases, the theories that support products liability cases in Ohio can be complex. Having the advice of an attorney who has handled products liability claims for victims and their families can help determine whether to pursue civil remedies for the claim, as well as whether criminal laws may apply.

Source: Washington Times, "Remington gun manufacturer wins OK to move Sandy Hook wrongful death suit to favorable fed court," Cheryl K. Chumley, Jan. 22, 2015

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