The lawsuit, filed in a Nevada state court on Tuesday, seeks to compel the company to cease the production, marketing, and sales of assault-style rifles, which have been implicated in numerous mass shootings across the United States.
The nuns, acting in their capacity as shareholders of Smith & Wesson, have accused the company's directors and senior management of exposing the firm to significant liability.
They allege that the company has deliberately violated federal, state, and local laws and has failed to address lawsuits arising from mass shootings. "These rifles have no purpose other than mass murder," the nuns stated emphatically.
Smith & Wesson, incorporated in Nevada, has yet to respond to the allegations. The company's AR-15 assault-style rifles have been used in several mass shootings, causing shock and dismay among Americans.
The lawsuit includes a chilling image from a 2012 mass shooting at a Colorado cinema, where a Smith & Wesson assault rifle lay on the blood-soaked ground next to a pair of pink sandals. The horrific incident claimed the lives of twelve individuals and injured seventy others.
The nuns' lawsuit is a derivative one, a type of legal action that seeks to hold corporate boards accountable for breaches of their duties to shareholders. However, courts typically protect boards from lawsuits concerning decisions made in good faith.
If the lawsuit succeeds, the company's directors would be held liable for any costs related to the alleged illegal marketing of assault rifles. Any damages awarded would be paid to Smith & Wesson, not the plaintiffs.
"This is the first derivative case against a board over assault rifles," stated Jeffrey Norton, the nuns' attorney. The nuns contend that Smith & Wesson's directors have disregarded the escalating legal risks associated with manufacturing assault-style rifles.
Gun manufacturers have historically enjoyed extensive immunity from liability in mass shootings, thanks to the 2005 US law known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. However, last year's $73 million settlement by rival gunmaker Remington to families of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut has spurred others to pursue legal action over mass shootings.
Simultaneously, several states, including New York, Illinois, and California, have enacted laws that either ban assault rifles or facilitate lawsuits over their use. Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court and numerous other states have taken measures to broaden gun-owner rights.
In its 2022 annual report, Smith & Wesson cautioned that it might be required to pay substantial damages due to legal proceedings against the company.
The lawsuit was filed by the Adrian Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Michigan; Sisters of Bon Secours USA of Marriottsville, Maryland; Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia of Aston, Pennsylvania; and Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus & Mary, US-Ontario Province of Marylhurst, Oregon.