New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
SMITH v. STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2019-015-189, Claim No. 126875

Synopsis

Pro se inmate claim alleging negligent supervision was dismissed following a remote video trial.

Case information

UID: 2019-015-189
Claimant(s): PATRICE SMITH
Claimant short name: SMITH
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 126875
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: FRANCIS T. COLLINS
Claimant's attorney: Patrice Smith, Pro Se
Defendant's attorney: Honorable Letitia James, Attorney General
By: Shadi Masri, Esq., Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: October 2, 2019
City: Saratoga Springs
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

Claimant, a pro se inmate in the custody of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), seeks damages for injuries sustained when he was assaulted by a fellow inmate. Trial of this matter was conducted by video conference on September 17, 2019.

Claimant testified that on March 23, 2015, he was working in the soap shop at Great Meadow Correctional Facility supervising certain inmates in the performance of their work. When a production order "came up short",(1) claimant reported this fact to a civilian supervisor. Later that day, while claimant was sitting at a desk, inmate Kenneth Griffin came down the stairs and approached him from his right side wielding a threaded rod which had been sharpened to a point. Claimant jumped up and ran to a nearby desk where a civilian was sitting and then around a corner in the area of the civilian lounge, all the while being chased by Griffin wielding the makeshift weapon. Claimant testified that he was cut on the shoulder and sustained a cut on his finger when he knocked the weapon out of Griffin's hand. According to the claimant, since inmates must pass through a metal detector upon entering the soap shop, the only way Griffin could have obtained the metal rod that was used to make the weapon is if it was an unsecured tool from the soap shop.

On cross-examination claimant testified that threaded rods of the type used to make the weapon secured lighting and other fixtures to the soap shop ceiling. He stated that when the inmates removed a large tank from the soap shop, presumably from the ceiling, the metal was removed and the threaded rods were placed in a second tool room where they could have easily been accessed by Griffin. Claimant also stated that he makes no claim for the injury to his face, which was sustained in an unrelated incident in the medical department after the subject incident occurred.

Defendant called Darin Williams, a Lieutenant employed by DOCCS for the past 32 years. Lieutenant Williams testified that he is familiar with the soap shop and the criteria used to screen inmates working there. The soap shop has one tool room and access is restricted to a civilian and an officer who are the only individuals with a key. Lieutenant Williams identified the weapon depicted in Exhibit C and testified that it was formed from a piece of a hanger used to hold duct work to the ceilings. He stated that he has seen these threaded rods used as weapons before. Inmates sharpen them on the cement so there is no need for them to use or sign out a grinder, which is classified as a Class A hazardous tool. In fact, Lieutenant Williams testified that inmates have no access to any tools which might be used to sharpen a weapon. Contrary to claimant's testimony, Lieutenant Williams testified that while inmates do not go through a metal detector upon entering the soap shop, they are required to go through one upon exiting. The witness also testified that screws, bolts and other tools are all secured in the maintenance area, which is secured and not accessible to inmates.

With respect to Griffin's suitability for work in the soap shop, Lieutenant Williams testified that DOCCS prohibits employment of inmates in the soap shop if they have any weapons charges within the last year. Reviewing Inmate Griffin's disciplinary record (Exhibit B), Lieutenant Williams testified that Inmate Griffin's last disciplinary charge before the incident was in 2010. However, Lieutenant Williams did not know the date Inmate Griffin started work in the soap shop.

It is well settled that "[h]aving assumed physical custody of inmates, who cannot protect and defend themselves in the same way as those at liberty can, the State owes a duty of care to safeguard inmates, even from attacks by fellow inmates" (Sanchez v State of New York (99 NY2d 247, 252 [2002]; see also Flaherty v State of New York, 296 NY 342 [1947]). This duty does not require "unremitting surveillance in all circumstances," nor does it cast the State in the role of an insurer of inmate safety (Sanchez, 99 NY2d at 256). Rather, "defendant's duty is limited to providing reasonable care to protect inmates from risks of harm that are reasonably foreseeable, i.e., those that defendant knew or should have known" (Vasquez v State of New York, 68 AD3d 1275, 1276 [2009]; see also Dickson v Putnam, 171 AD3d 1131 [2d Dept 2019]; Wassmann v County of Ulster, 144 AD3d 1470 [3d Dept 2016]; Anderson v State of New York, 125 AD3d 1273 [4th Dept 2015]; Di Donato v State of New York, 25 AD3d 944 [3d Dept 2006]). "The mere occurrence of an inmate assault, without credible evidence that the assault was reasonably foreseeable, cannot establish the negligence of the State" (Sanchez, 99 NY2d at 256; Williams v State of New York, 125 AD3d 1472, 1472 [4th Dept 2015], lv denied 25 NY3d 907 [2015]; Melvin v State of New York, 101 AD3d 1654 [4th Dept 2012]).

Here, claimant failed to establish, by a preponderance of the credible evidence, that the assault upon him by inmate Griffin was reasonably foreseeable. Contrary to claimant's contention, it cannot be concluded that inmate Griffin obtained the rod from dismantled equipment stored in the soap shop or that he was permitted access to any equipment capable of sharpening the rod. Lieutenant Williams testified, credibly, that inmates exiting the soap shop are required to pass through a metal detector. Claimant's theory - that the metal rod was obtained from the soap shop - therefore seems unlikely. Nor does it appear likely that the Class A hazardous equipment in the soap shop was used to sharpen the rod. Lieutenant Williams testified in this regard that such tools are secured and accessible by only a member of the correction staff or the civilian supervisor on duty. Rather, Lieutenant Williams indicated that such rods are used to secure ceiling fixtures throughout the prison and that inmates remove them for use as a weapon, sharpening the rods on a cement surface. Claimant's contrary theory that the rod was removed from the soap shop tool room or that the tools there were used to sharpen the rod is based on sheer speculation and insufficient to demonstrate defendant's negligence.

Based on the foregoing, the claim is dismissed.

Let judgment be entered accordingly.

October 2, 2019

Saratoga Springs, New York

FRANCIS T. COLLINS

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. Quotes are taken from the audio recording of the trial testimony.