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NY's top court tosses shooting victim's lawsuit against Ohio gun dealer

A 2003 gunshot victim had sued the dealer, along with the gunmaker and the distributor.

ALBANY — New York’s top court, in a sharply divided 4-3 decision on Thursday that continued the court’s conservative turn, refused to allow a Buffalo man to sue an Ohio gun dealer for negligence.

The New Yorker, Daniel Williams, was 16 years old when he was shot at a basketball court in 2003 with a gun a trafficker had bought from the Ohio dealer, Charles Brown, at gun shows there. Williams’ family claimed the seller knew the purchaser was intending to resell dozens of weapons in Buffalo.

Together with the Washington, D.C.,-based Brady Center, they filed a lawsuit against the gun maker, the distributor and Brown, seeking damages for Daniel’s injuries.

The majority on the Court of Appeals ruled, however, that the claim against Brown should be dismissed. Writing for the majority, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said there was insufficient evidence that Brown knowingly intended to serve guns to the New York market. Exercising jurisdiction over the Ohio gun dealer would "violate his federal due process rights," she wrote.

The minority, in a 33-page dissent, said their colleagues were ignoring the "simple facts" of the case and failed to follow “fundamental rules of judicial review.” They said “principles of federalism support exercising jurisdiction over dealers like Brown who supply the illegal interstate gun market.”

The cases against the gun manufacturer, Ohio-based Beemiller, and the distributor, MKS Supply (owned by Brown), are still pending.

Last month, Newsday wrote about the Court of Appeals' turn to the right, which stands in contrast with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the state Legislature’s turn to the political left.

Criminal defendants and civil litigants have been losing a much higher percentage of cases during the tenure of DiFiore than under her predecessors. For example, defendants won 25 percent of the cases over the last three years, compared  with close to 50 percent under former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. Business owners, employers and governments have won about 75 percent of civil cases under DiFiore.

In the Williams matter, DiFiore and Justices Paul Feinman, Michael Garcia and Leslie Stein ruled for a business owner, saying Brown’s connection to New York was insufficient to establish jurisdiction here.

The case began in 2003 when Williams, considered a college basketball prospect, was shot in the stomach while playing basketball outside his home, when a gang member mistook him  for a member of a rival gang. He recovered, but his sports career ended.

The shooter was convicted and Williams and the anti-gun-violence Brady Center sued Brown and the gun companies. In the course of the case, James Bostic, who had purchased 182 handguns from Brown in Ohio, was convicted of gun trafficking crimes.

According to court documents, Bostic and his associates told Brown they were thinking of opening a gun store in Buffalo. Instead, they sold them illegally on the streets. Williams contended that meant Brown legally “availed” himself to the New York market, subjecting him to state jurisdiction.

Brown’s lawyer said that’s not the case, nor the threshold.

“What you have to show is [Brown] purposely availed himself to New York,” attorney Scott Braum said, giving examples such as “shipping to New York, advertising in New York, having a New York phone number.”

“There was absolutely no conduct by Mr. Brown directed toward New York,” Braum said. “The entire nature of the sale was a local transaction.”

The attorney for Williams and the Brady Center didn’t immediately return messages to comment.

The court’s three most liberal judges, Jenny Rivera, Rowan Wilson and Eugene Fahey, said their counterparts ignored precedent and had “broken new ground” in finding reasons to dismiss the case.

“The majority’s approach shields gun traffickers and their suppliers from civil liability in New York,” Fahey wrote for the dissenters. “It has done so without citation to any authority that squarely supports its case …”

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