Critical Wrongful Death Resolution
For several decades, Newtown, Connecticut invoked images of a tranquil, picturesque Danbury suburb, with its small-town aura and natural surroundings. But that all changed on December 14, 2012, when an assailant armed with an AR-15 broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School and committed one of the most horrific mass shootings in United States history. The gunman killed 26 victims—20 children between six and seven years old, and six adult staff members— and injured two more after he took his mother’s life and later, his own on the same day.
In the decade since, victims and their families have sought accountability. The families of nine of the victims turned to the law firm of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder (Koskoff). Given Koskoff’s deep roots in the community and expansive practice, the plaintiffs trusted the firm to find a way to hold the maker of the AR-15 used in the shooting accountable for its role in the tragedy.
Koskoff filed the nine families’ wrongful death suit in 2014 against Remington, the company that made and marketed the AR-15 weapon used in the shooting. For seven-plus years, Koskoff beat back Remington’s attempts to defeat the case. Finally, in February 2022 Koskoff secured a landmark $73 million settlement and a chance to bring meaningful change to the way to guns are marketed in the U.S.
“These nine families have shared a single goal from the very beginning: to do whatever they could to help prevent the next Sandy Hook,” says firm partner and lead counsel Josh Koskoff. “It is hard to imagine an outcome that better accomplishes that goal.”
Several legal hurdles stood before the Koskoff team, including the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which was believed to be a blanket immunity in mass shooting cases. But Koskoff and co-lead counsel and partner Alinor Sterling alleged that Remington’s aggressive and violence-glorifying marketing of its AR-15s violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act. Defying the predictions of legal analysts, that theory prevailed. In 2019, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that the families had alleged a claim permitted by PLCAA and allowed the case to proceed. The years of litigation were certainly challenging, and the plaintiffs even rejected Remington’s 2021 settlement in their quest for justice.
“This years-long struggle was all worthwhile in order to achieve the families’ goals, which were not limited to compensation,” Sterling says. “The settlement does not dispute the families’ right to make public thousands of pages of internal documents that expose Remington’s wrongdoing.” Ultimately, the result may set a legal precedent for other civil suits that arise from other mass shootings and gun violence.
“We showed what we can achieve through the justice system,” Sterling adds. “We can draw the public’s attention to these issues and force gun executives to look us in the eyes while they answer questions under oath. And when they’re looking in our eyes, they’re also looking into the eyes of the families. Battling through this case has been challenging but also uplifting, and shows the best of what it is to be a lawyer.”
A Defamation Suit Unlike Any Other
Koskoff is renowned for bringing meaningful change through its various practice areas. This versatility was integral when the firm was needed to litigate a concurrent high-profile battle stemming from the Sandy Hook shooting. This one involved misinformation through the airwaves.
Infowars owner Alex Jones made repeated and baseless claims on his programs that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax. The falsehoods projected to his audience segued onto social media and created a new dimension of suffering for the victims and their families.
With the wrongful death case against Remington already in progress, and having established the trust of the plaintiffs, a Koskoff team led by Chris Mattei filed a defamation suit in 2018 on behalf of eight victims’ families against Jones.
“Imagine you are grief stricken and suffering the loss of a child, and also attempting to care for your surviving children,” Mattei says. “And at the same time, you start getting these hateful messages that your child is actually alive, that it didn’t happen, that you’re lying and even a crisis actor. That would completely disrupt the natural healing process. You don’t get an opportunity to grieve in peace, because you are now yourself the target of harassment and threats. That is what we allege Alex Jones unleashed and it continues to this day—a terrible injustice for which he will be held accountable by a jury.”
Mattei was continually inspired by the plaintiffs, who stood tall in the face of adversity and would not let their children’s or loved ones’ legacies be tarnished. Following years of over-the-top stall tactics by Jones and his lawyers in court, in November 2021 Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis issued a default in the lawsuits, one of the harshest sanctions possible.
This extraordinary action ensured that a jury trial would commence. Mattei says that he is confident in the firm’s abilities to secure a favorable outcome in the case, which is scheduled for September. Just as with the action against Remington, Mattei expects the litigation against Jones to reverberate across the justice system and American culture.
“We are as a country facing a crisis of disinformation and an attack on truth that is threatening our democratic society,” says Mattei. “Our case against Jones will send a strong signal that the justice system is one way to combat that dangerous trend and the harm it causes.
“We will show that you cannot lie, inflict suffering and hide behind the First Amendment to avoid the consequences. Lies have never been protected by the First Amendment and for good reason. This case reflects Koskoff’s mission to take on tough cases that need to be brought to hold powerful people accountable for the suffering they cause.”
Justin Smulison is a professional writer who regularly contributes to Best Lawyers. He was previously a reporter for the New York Law Journal and also led content and production for the Custom Projects Group at ALM Media. In addition to his various credited and uncredited writing projects, he has developed global audiences hosting and producing podcasts and audio interviews for professional organizations and music sites. JustinSmulison.contently.com