A gun dealer from Ohio should face litigation from a Buffalo man shot by one of his guns because he knew the firearm could be trafficked into New York for resale, attorneys for the victim argued before the state Court of Appeals on Wednesday.
Some justices on the state’s highest court, however, were skeptical that state law would allow the dealer to face civil litigation in New York over the victim’s injuries since he didn’t definitively know the gun sale would result in the shooting.
The case is between Daniel Williams, a Buffalo man and the victim of the shooting, and Charles Brown, the gun dealer from Ohio.
Williams was represented before the Court of Appeals by Jonathan Lowy, the chief counsel at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-safety advocacy group. Brown was represented by Scott Braum, an attorney from Dayton, Ohio.
Brown sold more than 180 guns to Nigel Bostic at a gun show in Ohio nearly two decades ago. Bostic, who said at the time he was considering opening a gun shop in Ohio and Buffalo, went on to traffic those guns into New York for illegal resale. One of those guns was obtained by Cornell Caldwell, who shot Williams in 2003 when he thought he was a member of a rival gang.
Williams is now seeking damages from Brown—as well as the gun manufacturer and an Ohio wholesaler—for the injuries he sustained from the shooting. Brown is trying to have the litigation against him thrown out, arguing that he shouldn’t be subject to the lawsuit in New York.
The conflict is over the state’s so-called long-arm statute and whether the litigation in New York would violate Brown’s due process rights. The long-arm statute generally allows litigation against individuals or entities outside New York who do business within the state.
Lowy argued that Brown should have to face the lawsuit after he admitted on the record to federal law enforcement officials that he was aware the guns he was selling to Bostic could end up in New York, where they could be used illegally. Bostic had apparently told Brown at the time that he was considering setting up shop in Buffalo.
“What he said is, [the buyer] was going into business, that they planned on opening a store in Ohio, one in Buffalo,” Lowy argued. “That was before defendant Brown made this sale, so that is testimony of him actually considering in personal jurisdiction terms whether to purposefully avail himself of the New York market and he decided to. He didn’t have to.”
Associate Judge Leslie Stein countered Lowy’s argument, calling it skeptical since there’s no way Brown could have known exactly what Bostic was planning to do with the guns he sold him. The two men had a conversation about what he could possibly do in the future, but Brown couldn’t have known what the end result would be, Stein argued.
“When he’s selling these guns, he doesn’t know if they’re going to stay in Bostic’s basement in Ohio forever, or until he opens a store in Ohio, or maybe someday he’ll open a store in Buffalo,” Stein said. “I just don’t see how that’s anything more than speculation.”
The Appellate Division, Fourth Department had decided last year in the case that Brown could not be subject to the litigation and dismissed the claims against him. The panel had said at the time that, since he didn’t have direct contact with the gun sales in New York, a lawsuit would violate his due process rights.
Associate Judge Eugene Fahey said during arguments that he interpreted the case to be decided based on whether Brown had minimum contacts with New York through the transaction. A test of minimum contacts is used in civil litigation to determine whether an out-of-state individual’s actions were connected enough to another state to warrant jurisdiction.
“It seems to me this case really narrows down to purposeful availment, not the amount of sales, not the revenues, and fundamentally purposeful availment and whether the record supports that argument,” Fahey said.
Lowy pointed out later during arguments that criminal papers for Bostic, who was convicted of gun trafficking, were included in the record for the lawsuit. That proceeding showed that all of the guns he bought from Brown were trafficked into New York, Lowy said.
“It’s in Bostic’s criminal papers that every single one of these guns was used in New York,” Lowy said. “Bostic brought every single one and sold them on the criminal market in Buffalo.”
Braun argued that the Appellate Division had already provided the analysis on minimum contacts, and had correctly concluded that Brown wasn’t eligible for the litigation in New York.
“They went through the full-blown minimum contacts analysis … and they said there weren’t minimum contacts,” Braun said. “You have to look at all the purposeful availment factors. Jurisdiction is designed to protect the defendant.”
The Court of Appeals is expected to hand down a decision in the case in early May.