Court of appeals reinstates shooting victim’s lawsuit against gun maker and dealers over federal gun laws violation

by Michael Heygood

Daniel Williams was a Buffalo, New York, high school student in 2003 when he was shot in the abdomen by a gang member who apparently mistook Daniel for a rival gang member.

The gun used to shoot Daniel was identified as a Hi–Point 9mm semi-automatic pistol manufactured by Beemiller, Inc., doing business as Hi–Point. Beemiller sold the gun to defendant MKS Supply, Inc. MKS then sold the gun to defendant Charles Brown, a federal firearms licensee in Ohio. In October 2000, Brown sold 87 handguns, including the gun at issue, to Kimberly Upshaw and James Nigel Bostic at a gun show in Ohio.

Daniel alleges that Bostic, a Buffalo resident, was engaged in a trafficking scheme whereby he traveled to Ohio, a state with less stringent gun control laws than New York, and used “straw purchasers” to obtain large numbers of handguns. Bostic then supplied those guns, including the gun used to shoot plaintiff, to the criminal market in New York.

According to the lawsuit, Beemiller and MKS intentionally supplied handguns to irresponsible dealers, including Brown, because they profited from sales to the criminal gun market. Brown, in turn, sold numerous handguns, including the subject gun, to Bostic and Upshaw, even though he knew or should have known that they “intended to sell these multiple guns on the criminal handgun market, to supply prohibited persons and criminals such as Caldwell with handguns.”

The defendants each moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to a federal law, the Protection of The Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (“PLCAA”) (15 USC §§ 7901–7903, as added by Pub L 109–92, 119 U.S. Stat 2095). The trial court granted the motion to dismiss. However, the court of appeals has just reversed that ruling and reintsated the lawsuit in Williams v. Beemiller, Inc., — N.Y.S.2d —- (N.Y.A.D. 4th Dept. October 5, 2012). In short, the court of appeals agreed with the plaintiffs that the trial court erred in dismissing the complaint pursuant to the PLCAA.

The PLCAA, which went into effect on October 26, 2005, generally shields manufacturers and sellers of firearms from liability for harm caused by the criminal or unlawful misuse of their non-defective products, i.e., products that functioned as designed and intended. On appeal, the question was whether Daniel’s claims fell within in any of the exceptions to the PLCAA.

The PLCAA does not bar “an action in which a manufacturer or seller of a qualified product knowingly violated a State or Federal statute applicable to the sale or marketing of the product, and the violation was a proximate cause of the harm for which relief is sought.” In this case, Daniel did allege that the defendants knowingly violated applicable laws. For example, with respect to the gun dealer defendant Brown specifically, the complaint alleges that he “violated federal, state, and local statutes, regulations, and ordinances[ ] by selling firearms with a federal firearms license registered to his home address, by selling firearms with a federal firearms license solely at gun shows, and by selling firearms to Upshaw, who was purchasing firearms on Bostic’s behalf, when Brown knew or had reasonable cause to believe that Bostic was ineligible to purchase a weapon.” The court of appeals concluded that, although Daniel’s complaint does not specify the statutes allegedly violated, it sufficiently alleges facts supporting a finding that defendants knowingly violated federal gun laws.

Daniel alleged that Upshaw engaged in illegal straw purchases on behalf of Bostic with the knowledge and assistance of Brown, a federally licensed firearms dealer. Specifically, plaintiffs allege that, on at least four different occasions, Brown sold guns to Bostic, a “convicted felon” who was prohibited from purchasing firearms (see 18 USC § 922[d][1] ), via straw purchases to Upshaw. According to their lawsuit, Bostic selected and paid for the handguns while Upshaw filled out the required paperwork as the purchaser of record, circumstances that are suggestive of a prohibited straw purchase. Brown allegedly sold at least 140 handguns to Bostic and/or Upshaw in this manner.

In October 2000, Brown allegedly sold Bostic and/or Upshaw 87 handguns, including the gun used to shoot plaintiff, at a gun show in Ohio. According to plaintiffs, Brown knew or should have known that Upshaw and/or Bostic were purchasing the 87 handguns for trafficking in the criminal market rather than for their personal use because (1) they had purchased multiple guns on prior occasions; (2) they paid for the guns in cash; and (3) they selected Hi–Point 9mm handguns, which are “disproportionately used in crime” and have “no collector value or interest.”

With respect to Beemiller and MKS, the court of appeals concluded that the complaint sufficiently alleged that those entities were accomplices to Brown’s statutory violations. The complaint alleges that Beemiller and MKS supplied handguns to Brown even though they knew or should have known that he was distributing those guns to unlawful purchasers for trafficking into the criminal market. In support thereof, plaintiffs allege that from 1988 through 2000, ATF notified Beemiller and MKS that over 13,000 guns they sold had been used in crimes. Notably, MKS is allegedly the “sole marketer and distributor of Hi–Point firearms,” and Brown, who is now the president of MKS, was a high-level officer during the relevant time period.

Because the court of appeals concluded that Daniel’s lawsuit fell within one of the exceptions to the PLCAA, it held that the trial court had erred by dismissing the case based on the PLCAA. The court of appeals ordered that Daniel’s lawsuit is reinstated against defendants Beemiller, Inc., doing business as Hi–Point, Charles Brown and MKS Supply, Inc.

by Michael Heygood

Michael Heygood is a licensed attorney and partner at HO&P who focuses on insurance and corporate litigation, and other civil arenas. Michael has been named multiple times to the Super Lawyers List.