New York has never been a gun-friendly place, which made it a good venue to take the chance of sucking in Ohio gun seller, Charles Brown, when a gun he sold lawfully ended up being illegally sold to a “Buffalo gang member” and, ultimately, injuring the plaintiff. How far can New York’s long arm statute reach? Not that far, the Court of Appeals held.
Defendant Charles Brown, a federal firearm licensee, was authorized to sell handguns only in Ohio and only to Ohio residents, which he primarily accomplished through retail sales at gun shows held in various locations in Ohio. Brown did not maintain a website, had no retail store or business telephone listing, and did no advertising of any kind, except by posting a sign at his booth when participating in a gun show. In a series of transactions in 2000, Brown sold handguns to James Nigel Bostic and his associates. Prior to the transaction involving the gun at issue here, Brown consulted with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to ensure its legality. For each transaction, the necessary forms required by the ATF were properly completed and submitted, the purchaser passed the required Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) background check before the firearms were transferred, Brown verified that the purchaser had government-issued identification demonstrating Ohio residency, and notification of the purchases was timely sent to local law enforcement and the ATF as required by the federal Gun Control Act (see 18 USC § 922).
On these facts, there would appear to be no serious issue. Brown was in Ohio, sold guns in Ohio and complied with the law. Yet, along the way, the trial court’s grant of his motion to dismiss was reversed, and his motion for summary judgment was denied. How could this be?
During the transactions, Bostic indicated he was in the process of becoming a federal firearms licensee and was acquiring inventory for the eventual opening of a gun shop. Instead of opening a shop, Bostic brought the firearms to New York, illegally reselling one of the handguns to a Buffalo gang member. That gang member then used the handgun in a shooting that caused injury to plaintiff.
The factual question, hammered by Judge Eugene Fahey in dissent, was whether Brown had reason to believe that the guns he lawfully sold in Ohio would make their way to Buffalo.
It is impossible for any court to apply the rule of law if the simple facts are ignored. Here the undisputed facts establish that defendant Charles Brown, on multiple occasions, sold firearms in Ohio to defendant non-domiciliary James Nigel Bostic, a gun trafficker who Brown knew planned to open a store . . . in Buffalo” and who did indeed sell guns – albeit illegally – in that city.
As Judge Fahey recites, the harm done with the gun was, as is so often the case, awful.
Daniel Williams (plaintiff) was shot in a case of mistaken identity while he played basketball in front of a neighbor’s house in Buffalo in August 2003. The bullet that struck plaintiff entered his stomach, and closing the wound required 22 stitches. Plaintiff, a promising student, could barely walk when he was released from the hospital, and those injuries sidelined a basketball career that included plaintiff’s consideration as an NCAA Division I prospect.
Certainly Daniel Williams didn’t deserve to have this happen to him, and its impact is incalculable. He could sue the gangbanger, Cornell Caldwell, who shot him, but that’s hardly a worthwhile cause as you can’t get blood from a rock. So he went downstream to Brown, the person who sold the gun that eventually ended up discharging its bullet into his stomach, for compensation.
From those facts and allegations arose three sets of charges. Caldwell pleaded guilty to assault in the second degree – a class C violent felony – based on his participation in the incident in which plaintiff was shot. Bostic, in turn, pleaded guilty to federal trafficking crimes based on his participation in the scheme through which Caldwell obtained the gun that he used to shoot plaintiff (see 18 USC § 922 [a]  [A] [unlawfully dealing in firearms and, in the course thereof, unlawfully transporting the firearms in interstate commerce]; 18 USC § 922 [a]  [unlawfully transferring firearms to individuals who were residing in a state other than that in which the defendant was residing]). Most importantly for the purposes of this appeal, plaintiff and his father, plaintiff Edward Williams, commenced this action seeking justice with respect to the significant, life-altering personal injuries that plaintiff suffered in the shooting.
Much as those convictions may appear to matter, they do nothing to compensate Williams for the injuries suffered or the future lost. So why shouldn’t Brown pay, as he sold the gun used to wreak havoc with Williams’ life.
With respect to due process, “[a] non-domiciliary tortfeasor has minimum contacts with the forum State . . . if it purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State” (LaMarca, 95 NY2d at 216 [internal quotations marks and citations omitted]),“thus invoking the benefits and protections of [the forum state’s] laws” (Hanson v Denckla, 357 US 235, 253 ). This test envisions something more than the “fortuitous circumstance” that a product sold in another state later makes its way into the forum jurisdiction through no marketing or other effort of defendant (World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v Woodson, 444 US 286, 295 ; see J. McIntyre Machinery, Ltd. v Nicastro, 564 US 873, 888-889  [Breyer, J., concurring]). Put another way, “the mere likelihood that a product will find its way into the forum” cannot establish the requisite connection between defendant and the forum “such that [defendant] should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there” (World-Wide Volkswagen, 444 US at 297).
Guns, like most goods, can travel. The gun lawfully sold by Brown to Bostic found its way to New York, to Buffalo, and to the hands of someone who should never have had the gun and never have fired it into Williams’ stomach. There is no question that Brown did anything to affirmatively cause this, but that he didn’t prevent it by refusing to sell to Bostic, given that Bostic informed him to some extent of his plan to bring it to Buffalo as inventory to open a legal gun shop, gives rise to jurisdiction in New York.
What happened to Williams was brutal, and the pain, the injuries and the damage to his life can’t be understated. But as horrible as the consequences were, it failed to overcome the fact that Brown had nothing to do with New York, and as much as New York might have wanted someone capable of paying to be liable to Williams, this was too far a reach. It’s not that the story wasn’t sad enough; it was. But due process precludes states from pulling in lawful conduct elsewhere to the courts where the consequences were suffered but the individual had no contacts. Guns can travel. but jurisdiction doesn’t necessarily follow them.