Judge rules in favor of plaintiffs and overrules Smith & Wesson’s effort to move litigation to federal court
HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. – This week, in a victory for survivors, a federal court rejected Smith & Wesson’s extraordinary attempts to remove from state court the civil lawsuits filed by survivors of the Highland Park, Ill. mass shooting. In granting the motions to remand by the survivors, the federal court found that there was no basis under long standing case law for removing the cases to federal court, and that the violations of Illinois state consumer protection law alleged against Smith & Wesson properly belong before a state court. The federal court also rejected Smith & Wesson’s unprecedented argument that it should be able to apply to itself a removal statute intended for the federal government.
The victory comes nearly one year after the lawsuits were first filed in Circuit Court of Lake County, Ill., and nearly 16 months after a gunman used a Smith & Wesson assault rifle to murder seven people, wound more than four dozen more, and traumatize others gathered for the annual July 4th parade. The plaintiffs in the lawsuits include the families of individuals killed in the shooting, parade-goers who were shot and wounded, and people at the parade who were traumatized by the shooting.
In September 2022, Romanucci & Blandin, LLC, alongside co-counsel Everytown Law and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, filed 10 civil lawsuits, one for each family they represent, against the individuals and entities responsible for the shooting: Smith & Wesson; an online gun distributor, Bud’s Gun Shop; an Illinois gun retailer, Red Dot Arms; the shooter; and the shooter’s father. The complaints alleged numerous state law claims and were filed exclusively on behalf of Lake County residents who attended the local parade in Highland Park, located in Lake County. The plaintiffs allege that Smith & Wesson’s marketing of the murder weapon was unfair and deceptive, including because it misleadingly implies a non-existent association between its “M&P” (Military and Police) line of assault rifles and the U.S. military, and because it knew that its marketing and sales practices promote and sell an image that caters to and attracts individuals like the shooter.
The lawsuits further allege that the two gun retailers, online distributor Bud’s Gun Shop and retailer Red Dot Arms, negligently and illegally sold the murder weapon – a Smith & Wesson M&P assault rifle — to the shooter in violation of the assault weapons bans in Highwood and Highland Park, Ill.
Shortly after the lawsuits were filed, Smith & Wesson sought to remove the cases from state court in Lake County to federal court in the Northern District of Illinois. After considering briefs by the opposing parties, Judge Steven C. Seeger, the District Court judge presiding over these cases in federal court, issued a detailed 55-page opinion determining that the cases belong in state court.
Judge Seeger made clear that “[a] federal court must remand a case back to state court if it lacks jurisdiction” and after a lengthy analysis, concluded that “[t]he complaint offers many reasons why Smith & Wesson violated the state statutes, and many of those reasons have nothing to do with federal law.” He went on: “A jury doesn’t need to decide a federal question to get from here to there, and the mere possibility of addressing federal law is not enough to blaze a path to the federal courthouse.”
Antonio M. Romanucci, a founding partner at Romanucci & Blandin, said the victims and their families were pleased with the decision. “We are very satisfied with the ruling of Judge Steven Seeger and believe the residents of Lake County, Illinois deserve the opportunity to determine what justice looks like for this mass tragedy in their community,” he said. “We believe the defendants should be held accountable to the laws of Illinois, and that having the cases in state court is just and fair. Too many lives in and around Highland Park have been devastated by the death and catastrophic injury of loved ones, and we are fiercely committed to securing the justice they deserve.”
“While this is just one step in our case, this marks a win for survivors and sends a clear message of accountability for manufacturers whose products take lives and cause irreparable harm,” said Alla Lefkowitz, senior director of affirmative litigation at Everytown Law. “As our suit alleges, the responsibility of this tragedy does not fall solely on the shooter, but also on Smith & Wesson who deceptively marketed the murder weapon and retailers like Bud’s Gun Shop and Red Dot Arms, who illegally sold the shooter the weapon. We look forward to moving forward with this case in state court to hold defendants accountable and to prevent tragedies like this from repeating.”
Plaintiffs are represented by founding partner Antonio M. Romanucci, managing and senior partner Gina A. DeBoni, partners David Neiman and Michael E. Holden from Romanucci & Blandin, LLC; Alla Lefkowitz, senior director of affirmative litigation, Alison Barnes, deputy director of affirmative litigation, Carly Lagrotteria, counsel, and Lauren Keeley, litigation fellow from Everytown Law; and partners H. Christopher Boehning and Jeffrey Recher, counsel Hallie Goldblatt, and associates Jacob Humerick, Alex Beer and Shauna Shalvey from Paul, Weiss Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.