The state’s highest court is set to hear arguments on Wednesday on whether a gun dealer in Ohio can be sued in New York after a firearm he sold at a gun show in his home state was trafficked to Buffalo, where it was used in a shooting more than a decade ago.
The Court of Appeals has the opportunity to decide whether the litigation would violate the due process rights of Charles Brown, the Ohio dealer, who sold more than 180 guns to a man he knew was from Buffalo, New York, at a gun show in 2000.
Those guns were sold to James Nigel Bostic, who was alleged to have regularly traveled to Ohio to buy handguns for resale in Buffalo. Bostic later pleaded guilty to federal firearms trafficking. One of the guns sold by Brown to Bostic was obtained by Cornell Caldwell, who shot 16-year-old Daniel Williams because he thought he was a member of a rival gang.
Williams, the plaintiff in the suit, is seeking damages from Brown for the injuries he sustained from the shooting. Beemiller Inc., the manufacturer of the gun, and MKS Supply Inc., an Ohio firearm wholesaler, are also targets of the suit. Williams is represented by Jonathan Lowy, the chief counsel at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-safety advocacy group.
The litigation could have significant implications on the ability of individuals to bring legal actions against gun dealers in other states, where background checks are not required for all firearm sales. Background checks are required for all gun sales in New York under state law.
The question before the court is whether New York’s so-called Long-Arm Statute allows Williams to seek damages from Brown in state court. That section of state law generally allows litigation against individuals or entities outside New York who do business within the state.
The trial court in Erie County sided with Williams, saying that because Brown had made money from selling guns that were used in New York, he should be subject to litigation in the state. That decision also noted that Brown was allegedly aware to some extent that the guns he sold to Bostic would be trafficked into New York. Bostic apparently told Brown he was planning to open a firearm store in Buffalo, for example.
“Plaintiff has shown that Brown had some knowledge that guns would end up in New York,” the decision said. “The fact that significant number of guns sold by Brown to … Bostic have been found to be used in criminal activity here in Buffalo and the fact that the statement to Brown that Bostic … planned to open a store in Ohio and one in Buffalo, all of that establishes [that] that statute applies.”
The Appellate Division, Fourth Department reversed that decision, holding that Brown could not be subject to the litigation, and dismissed the claims against him. Justice Erin Peradotto wrote in the panel’s decision that, even though Brown generated revenue from the sale of guns that ended up in New York, he didn’t have direct contact with those transactions in the state.
Allowing the litigation against him would, therefore, violate his federal due process rights, Peradotto wrote.
“We conclude, however, that Brown’s knowledge that guns sold to Bostic might end up being resold in New York if Bostic’s ostensible plan or hope came to fruition in the future is insufficient to establish the requisite minimum contacts with New York because such circumstances demonstrate, at most, Brown’s awareness of the mere possibility that the guns could be transported to and resold in New York,” Peradotta wrote. “We agree with Brown that principles of federal due process preclude New York from exercising personal jurisdiction over him.”
Brown will be represented before the Court of Appeals by Scott Braum, an attorney from Dayton, Ohio.
Attorneys for Williams have argued that Brown should be held in the litigation because he sold the guns to Bostic even though he had some knowledge that they may end up in New York, and may consequently be used illegally.
“Brown could have refused to make those sales when the buyer told him that he planned to re-sell guns in New York,” Williams’ attorneys wrote. “But Brown chose to supply the New York market, profit from such sales, and violate federal law. By doing so, Brown supplied a gun trafficker and, ultimately, a criminal who shot New Yorker Daniel Williams in New York.”
Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, filed an amicus brief, or friend of the court filing, in the case supporting Williams earlier this year. The group highlighted the fact that Brown’s sales to Bostic in 2000 made up about a third of his total revenue for the year.
“Brown was, in reality, distributing guns in New York. He created his contacts with New York and engaged in a purposeful distribution arrangement to serve the firearms market in New York even though his sales to out-of-state residents violated federal law,” the group said in its brief. “If the decision below is allowed to stand, it will be far more difficult for New York to bring an end to the scourge of gun trafficking, and for New York residents to hold accountable those who profit from those deadly endeavors.”
The case is scheduled to be argued before the Court of Appeals on March 20. A decision will likely be handed down in early May.