Judge dismisses Mt. Pleasant family’s wrongful death lawsuit against gun maker, dealer
A Westmoreland County judge has dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit filed against a gun store and weapons manufacturer brought by the parents of a Mt. Pleasant teenager who was shot and killed by a friend in 2016.
Common Pleas Court Judge Harry Smail Jr. in a 16-page opinion threw out the lawsuit, ruling a 2005 federal law gives immunity to gun makers and dealers involving allegations that a legal weapon was used in a criminal act.
Mark and Leah Gustafson last year filed the lawsuit against Illinois-based Springfield Armory and Saloom Department Store for initially selling a gun used in the March 2016 incident that resulted in the death of their 13-year-old son, James Robert “JR” Gustafson.
Police said Gustafson was fatally shot by then 14-year-old John Burnsworth when the weapon discharged as the two teens were left in a home with a babysitter and three younger children. Burnsworth was eventually convicted in juvenile court of involuntary manslaughter and spent more than a year in a reform school.
The Gustafsons’ lawsuit alleged Springfield Armory and Saloom made and sold a 9mm semiautomatic handgun without warnings and safety features, including one that would prevent a gun from firing when the magazine is removed.
The U.S. Justice Department in the fall intervened in the lawsuit, helping the defendants in arguing the lawsuit should be dismissed because such litigation is prohibited by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.
That law, according the government’s legal filing and Smail’s ruling that was made public on Tuesday, grants civil immunity to gun and ammunition manufacturers and dealers in cases where weapons are used during the commission of a crime.
“Defendants point out the obvious link between the right to keep and bear arms and the obvious need for manufacturers and sellers to be able to produce and sell the same in interstate commerce. As such, this court finds that Congress’ exercise of its commerce power works directly in concert here with its power to enforce protected Second Amendment rights, bolster the argument that Congress has acted in an entirely valid and appropriate manner pursuant to its enumerated powers in enacting the PLCAA,” Smail wrote.
The judge ruled that the federal law was constitutional and that the product liability issues alleged in the Gustafson’s lawsuit could not be litigated in state court. In his ruling, Smail cited similar court rulings in other states that barred lawsuits against gun manufacturers.
A spokesman for the U.S Attorney’s office in Pittsburgh, which submitted a legal argument in opposition to the lawsuit, could not be reached for comment due to the federal government shutdown.
The Gustafsons’ lawsuit named only the gun seller and manufacturer as defendants. Neither Burnsworth or the other three adults who were prosecuted in connection with the fatal incident were named in the lawsuit.
Gustafson family lawyer, Gary F. Lynch of Pittsburgh, did not respond to a request for comment.
Westmoreland County prosecutors contended the gun used in the fatal shooting was originally won by a Mt. Pleasant man at a local gun bash. Kristopher Lewis, 47, was sentenced in 2016 to two years of probation for not filling out the proper paperwork when he sold the gun to Joshua Hudec.
Hudec, 34, of Mt. Pleasant, pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and other offenses and was sentenced to serve 11 1/2 to 23 months in jail. Hudec’s home on Church Street is where the fatal shooting occurred.
Prosecutors said he left his three young children at home with babysitter Brook Nelson. Now 21, the Ruffsdale woman pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment offenses and is serving an 11 1/2-to-23 month jail sentence. According to police, Nelson directed Burnsworth to retrieve the weapon from another room and use it to scare away his school friend, Gustafson.
Burnsworth in a previous court hearing contended he believed the weapon was unloaded.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293 or [email protected]
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .