Friday, May 9, 2014

Gun Dealer Liability in Alaska Courts

Two articles are in the news about a gun shop in Juneau being sued by family members of a murder victim.

The Rayco Sales Gun Store in Juneau, Alaska
The Superior Court dismissed the case, Alaska's Supreme Court reviewed de novo and remanded it. It was reopened in late 2013, and last week, a new motion for summary judgement was denied, setting course for a new trial.

The Alaska Dispatch has an article here, claiming this case will have national implications. The Anchorage Daily News (now owned by Alaska Dispatch) has what looks like the same article here.

If this sounds familiar, it's because the shooting was in the news seven years ago. As things wind their way through the justice system, often what makes news concerns activities quite old. In this case, the murder of Simone Kim by Jason Coday happened almost exactly seven years ago - May 15, 2007.

You can read the SCOAK transcript here, but I'll save you, dear reader, from 28 pages of opinion to sum up the points here. First, the anatomy of the theft:

  • Normal day in the gun shop, pictured above. Present are the owner, Ray Coxe, along with an employee and a customer
  • Coday walks in the shop, according to Coxe, looking like he had been "living in the woods", though all three in the store say they saw no signs of danger, violence or drug use 
  • Coday asks the store employee whether they stock Ruger 10/22 rifles
  • Coday engages the other customer in discussion about the differences between .22 rifles, saying he's interested in target shooting and wants something accurate.
  • Coday asks Coxe if he can look at some .22 rifles
  • Coxe brings him behind the counter to review a selection of .22s
  • Coday expresses interest in a used 10/22 selling for $195
  • Coday states that he'll "think about it" and returns to the public side of the counter
  • Thinking Coday was leaving, Coxe leaves the room to do other work
  • Later, the store employee noticed two $100 bills on the counter and the missing 10/22.
That's how the rifle was stolen, or if you believe the estate of the murdered, how the rifle was sold

Back to the gun store, after they noticed the missing rifle:
  • Coxe said he drove around the neighborhood looking for Coday
  • Coxe reported the stolen rifle to the Juneau Police Department
  • Coxes says that on the advice of the police officer, he deposited the $200 as a sale
  • The store's video surveillance system did not capture any of the day's events
  • Coday's next expenditure was ammunition and a hacksaw at the local dept. store.
Coday hulking out after
learning he'll die in prison
This was all on May 13th, two days before Coday killed Simone Kim, seemingly at random. He sawed off the barrel of the 10/22, shot Kim in the back multiple times, severing an artery. Coday was found guilty of the murder, attacked his own attorney upon hearing the verdict and was later sentenced to 99 years for the murder of Kim, and 2 additional years for weapons violations.

It would turn out that Coday was a fugitive from the Lower 48 with a history of drug and behavioral issues. He had brandished a shotgun in Las Vegas, for instance. In hindsight, it's safe to assume he would have failed the background check required for Coxe to have sold the gun, had this been purchased and not stolen.

Feeling that Coday wasn't the only one at fault in this, the family of Simone Kim brought a civil complaint against Coxe and his business, alleging that Coxe, knowing Coday could not pass a background check, had in fact sold the gun to Coday surreptitiously. At best, they allege, he was negligent in leaving Coday alone in the room.

Coxe claimed that the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) shields him and his business from liability for the misuse of a stolen product. The plaintiffs responded 1) that the PLCAA did not protect Coxe if he acted unlawfully and 2) now bandwagoned by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence (BCPGV), that the PLCAA is unconstitutional anyway. 

Did someone say "unconstitutional"? Enter the Feds. They swoop in to argue before the trial court that yes, PLCAA is constitutional but they don't have any opinion on its interpretation or application as concerns Coxe.

In 2010, the Superior Court granted summary judgement for the defendant based on PLCAA, with plaintiffs ordered to pay part of the defense costs in 2011. 

In reviewing the case, the Supreme Court of Alaska agreed that PLCAA was rightfully found to be constitutional (nice try, BCPGV) but didn't believe that the plaintiff's evidence contradicting Coxe's version of events was given enough consideration. That the Superior Court granted summary judgement without fully hearing such evidence is what gave the Supreme Court cause to remand the case. 

My Take: 
Does this case have "national implications" as the Dispatch suggests and the Brady Center hopes? 

Only if it attempts to reinterpret PLCAA, and neither this case, nor its recent remand, threaten to do so. In fact, the Court declares that none of the plaintiffs claims (knowing violation, negligence per se, or negligent entrustment) would survive a PLCAA defense if Coxe's version of events stands - that the firearm was stolen. To drive home the point, the Court affirms that PLCAA allows claims against a firearms dealer who knowingly violates statute or demonstrates gross negligence, and Coxe never argued otherwise. 

In this light, the case is simply about whether the plaintiffs can show a preponderance of evidence that Coxe and his two witnesses are lying, which should be damn difficult to do unless Coday, for whatever motivation, comes forward to attest to that happening.

It's ironic that, were it not for the murdering thief's "good" deed of putting cash on the counter, there'd be little question of whether this was a theft. Perhaps the better thing for the store owner would have been to let the police hold the money as 'lost', taking it only after it had gone unclaimed. By that time, of course, he'd know the money was toxic.  

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