Josh Koskoff Takes on Gun Maker

“In the Sandy Hook case you have families whose lives have been turned upside down,” he says. “They’re facing huge legal challenges, but if they can get out of bed in the morning after losing a child, then we have an obligation to help. I find it to be a core motivating belief that I have about how the law should be used.”
Josh Koskoff JD '94
One advertisement for the AR-15 Bushmaster rifle used to kill 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., read: “Consider your man card re-issued.” Another said: “Forces of opposition, bow down.”

In a case that’s earning much media attention and, predictably, generating both political polarization and emotional intensity, attorney Josh Koskoff JD’94 is leading a lawsuit against Remington, the manufacturer of the Bushmaster.

Filed on behalf of some of the Newtown victims’ families, the suit argues that Remington irresponsibly marketed its weapon to at-risk young men. The case received an important green light in November when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Remington arguing that a 2005 federal law shielded it from liability. The case will now be sent back to the trial court in Connecticut and proceed with the discovery process.

Koskoff wanted to help after talking to a family friend of slain school teacher Vicki Soto, though he knew next to nothing
about gun cases at the time. “The Sandy Hook case really found me, I didn’t find it,” he says. The case would later prove to be a tipping point in his legal career, which had previously centered mostly on medical malpractice.

“In the Sandy Hook case you have families whose lives have been turned upside down,” he says. “They’re facing huge legal challenges, but if they can get out of bed in the morning after losing a child, then we have an obligation to help. I find it to be a core motivating belief that I have about how the law should be used.”

Koskoff is also representing Sandy Hook families in a defamation suit against Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist who for years insisted the all-too-real horror in Newtown was a “giant hoax.” Those continual false claims took root, leading to sustained harassment, stalking, and even death threats against the already grieving parents.

In another case, Koskoff is suing eight different gunmakers on behalf of a victim of the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting that left 58 concertgoers dead and more than 500 injured. That shooter had an arsenal of guns stockpiled, but relied entirely on a dozen AR-15s from eight manufacturers to carry out the attack, according to Koskoff. “And they were all equipped with a bump stock,” he adds, a simple modification that can make a semi-automatic rifle fire continuously like a machine gun.

Koskoff’s suit alleges that “with a reckless lack of regard for public safety, defendant manufacturers courted buyers by advertising their AR-15s as military weapons and signaling the weapon’s ability to be simply modified.” In response, the manufacturers are likely to argue that the gun is for hunting, self-protection, and target practice and that under current law manufacturers can’t be held liable for a gun’s illegal misuse.

A law shielding gun manufacturers

The manufacturers have a strong defense. That’s partly because in 2005, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a law intended to shield gun manufacturers from blame when their weapons are used in a crime. Among other arguments, proponents of the PLCAA argued that it was necessary to protect the gun industry from the high costs incurred in defending unfounded lawsuits.

Koskoff was stunned to learn about the PLCAA, and one thing he hopes to accomplish by filing these suits, he says, is to “shatter the perception” among lawyers, judges, and the firearms industry itself that gunmakers can’t be held accountable for reckless behavior.

The law has some exceptions. According to the New York Times, “[t]he [PLCAA] law does allow for [lawsuits] for sale and marketing practices that violate state or federal laws and instances of so-called negligent entrustment, in which a gun is carelessly given or sold to a person posing a high risk of using it.”

Koskoff seeks to broaden the courts’ understanding of those exceptions, which he believes will have a positive effect. “[The law] gives the industry the sense that there’s no conduct too reckless or too unethical or amoral, that they can just do anything regardless of public safety because they can’t get sued,” he says. “Whether that’s true or not, the perception is dangerous.”

The law as equalizer

Long before Josh Koskoff enrolled at Suffolk Law, he was drawn to a vision of the law shaped by his father and grandfather—trial lawyers in Connecticut who once represented the Black Panthers in New Haven and helped integrate the Bridgeport Police Department during the Civil Rights era.

“They saw the role of the law, in its most idealistic and important way, as the institution that protects individuals from corporate or government abuses, and really as the great equalizer,” Koskoff says. “They seemed to be always on the side of the underdog. It seemed to me an incredibly noble profession.”

Suffolk Law was a great fit for him, he adds. He appreciated that there was a whole cohort of students who found a way to work during the day and succeed at law school at night, as well as the school’s practical approach. “Suffolk really encouraged you to go out and participate as early as you could in going to court and getting your sea legs under you as a lawyer—feeling what it was like.”

The family firm

When Koskoff joined the firm founded by his grandfather, Theodore Koskoff, who received an honorary JD from Suffolk in 1980, it took him some time to find his footing as he worked alongside his father, Michael Koskoff.

“I did feel early on a sense of total inadequacy, like I was going to torpedo the good family name,” Koskoff reflects. “It took a long time, but over many years we became more like colleagues at work who enjoyed challenging each other and coming up with different ideas for cases. But we didn’t work on a lot of cases together.”

That changed after Koskoff’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The prominent attorney passed away in April at the age of 77, but before he did, he asked his son to work with him on one last lawsuit. “When he got sick, he wanted to make sure the case was in good shape, and it was my incredible honor to work with him on it,” Koskoff says.

He hasn’t forgotten his father’s idealism and belief in the promise of the law to protect everyone.

“There’s definitely a perception that the law is unfair, that it favors the rich and powerful, that it’s weighted against minorities—and that perception is not invalid,” he says. “But any case I could handle that could change that perception, that could give people more confidence that the law exists for everybody and not just a few people at the top, I’ll take that chance.”