Can Orlando victims' families and survivors sue gunmaker Sig Sauer?

In the wake of Orlando's nightclub massacre, lawyers are taking aim at companies ranging from gunmaker Sig Sauer to G4S, the security firm that employed shooter Omar Mateen.

"I know the victims are going to sue," said Allan Sigel, the California attorney who heads his own firm and was co-counsel on the famous Erin Brockovich case that resulted in $333 million in pollution damages from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. "Their anger is overwhelming," he added.

And an impending ruling by a Connecticut Superior Court judge in the Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school shooting case three-and-a-half years ago could give these victims and their families a pathway to retribution and compensation.

Wrongful death and personal injury attorneys said a narrow exception to a 2005 federal law exempting gunmakers from responsibility for injury and loss inflicted by their weapons could be cited in the case of Mateen, who used a similar military-style weapon to kill 49 people at the Pulse nightclub and wound another 53. But only if it withstands scrutiny in a Connecticut courtroom first.

This week Connecticut Judge Barbara Bellis set a trial date for the civil suit naming gunmaker Remington, its wholesaler and the retailer of the gun used in the Newtown shooting -- and ordered defendants to disclose marketing materials and internal documents. While the ruling surprised those who thought the suit would be thrown out, the case still faces "long odds," according to The New York Times, including a hearing next week.

But it does offer some hope that the "Newtown strategy" could work and ultimately be replicated in the Orlando cases that seem sure to follow.

The issue is known as "negligent entrustment," the giving or selling of a gun to a person with a high risk of misusing it, for example, giving a loaded pistol to a child. The Newtown case takes it one step further by claiming that some semi-automatic weapons, because they fire multiple shots without reloading, are a weapon of war and therefore should never be sold to a civilian.

Whether Mateen -- who worked as a security guard and had multiple permits, licenses, background checks and firearms training -- would have qualified for such a weapon, is an unanswered question.

"The fact that a trial court in Connecticut has allowed this case to go forward is significant," said Philadelphia personal injury lawyer Shanin Specter of Kline & Specter. Generally, a "legislative judgment" is required to make certain weapons illegal -- as fully automatic weapons now are, in most instances. But if the case goes forward, it will create liability for gun seller Sig Sauer, which might not be able to get insurance, said Specter.

Generally, sellers are willing to take items deemed dangerous off the market in order to keep their reputation, Specter said. But profits and the market for semi-automatic weapons keep growing faster than the calls to stop selling them. "There are 8 million of them out there," Specter said of the weapons. "They'll be with us for centuries."

Other possible lawsuits, such as those against Mateen's employer, G4S, the world's largest security firm, are likely to be nonstarters -- unless an investigation turns up information that G4S had prior knowledge of a specific threat about when and where Mateen was going to commit this crime.

One of Mateen's co-workers, Daniel Gilroy, told Florida Today that Mateen talked about killing people, but U.K.-based G4S said in a statement to clients that any such talk went unreported. It also said that in 2015 Gilroy stated his co-workers were "good men and women that ... liked to work as a team."

That premise could be tested by the U.S. Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has sent a letter to G4S asking for information about Mateen's employment security reviews and concerns raised by co-workers regarding his possible connections to terrorism.

The committee, headed by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, said the company isn't suspected of any wrongdoing. However, media reports have noted bad acts and even crimes by G4S security guards and paramilitary forces in the past, including killings.

G4S is the world's third-largest private employer, with nearly 600,000 employees in more than 100 countries, including armored car guards, paramilitary operatives and private prison personnel.

In some cases, a company should be responsible for the actions of its employees, Sigel said. He recalled that when he had hired an associate who proved to be a fraud, he voluntarily paid the client for the shoddy work by the fake attorney.

The search for retribution probably won't extend to Mateen's wife or family, even though she reportedly has admitted to driving him to the Pulse nightclub and other locations he allegedly scouted out before committing the massacre. She also was present when he bought the ammunition.

"She is judgment-proof," said Specter. "She could be charged criminally with conspiracy, but the most you could do civilly is force her into bankruptcy. In that case, she couldn't get a mortgage."

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.