After trial, Court dismissed former inmate's claim for negligent supervision resulting in inmate-on-inmate attack.
|Claimant short name:||CAMPBELL|
|Footnote (claimant name) :|
|Defendant(s):||THE STATE OF NEW YORK|
|Footnote (defendant name) :|
|Judge:||CATHERINE C. SCHAEWE|
|Claimant's attorney:||FRANZBLAU DRATCH, P.C.
BY: Brian M. Dratch, Esq., of counsel
|Defendant's attorney:||HON. LETITIA JAMES, ATTORNEY GENERAL
BY: PETER DELUCIA, Assistant Attorney General
MARK SWEENEY, Assistant Attorney General
|Third-party defendant's attorney:|
|Signature date:||May 10, 2019|
|See also (multicaptioned case)|
Claimant, a former inmate, brought this claim for injuries incurred when he was attacked by a fellow inmate (Inmate Keys) on May 12, 2015 while incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility (Sullivan), allegedly due to negligent supervision by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. A bifurcated trial of the matter was held in the Binghamton District on May 7, 2019. This decision addresses only the issue of liability.
Claimant had been a regular participant in a basketball program at Sullivan for a number of years. On the date in question, he and other inmates - including Keys - had played a game of basketball for about 45 minutes. Claimant said he had seen Keys many times before while playing basketball, but that Keys had never previously threatened him or argued with him. When it was time to return to their cells, they gathered in a waiting area immediately adjacent to the basketball court awaiting an escort. Claimant testified that Keys, who was standing about four feet away, began complaining that claimant had taken too many shots during the game. Claimant responded that he was a better player than Keys. Claimant said Keys moved toward him, and stated in essence that he was going to mess claimant up. Claimant said he did not threaten Keys, but that the verbal argument lasted over a minute. Keys suddenly hit claimant once, severely injuring claimant's right eye. Claimant said that Correction Officer (CO) McBride, who was standing about five feet away, grabbed claimant and claimant was unable to hit Keys back. McBride told them to break it up, and they both ceased the dispute. Claimant said they both remained on their feet the entire time. Claimant and Keys were then taken to the infirmary, and claimant was subsequently treated for a serious eye injury at an outside hospital. Claimant acknowledged that Keys never said he was going to hit claimant, nor did Keys ask claimant if he wanted to fight.
Inmate Keys testified that while playing basketball on that date, he became discouraged and stopped making any attempt to play competitively. He said that after the game, claimant said he was unhappy about Keys' game and started "mouthing off"(1) that Keys was not "hustling." He responded that claimant was taking too many shots and the dispute about the game escalated, with other inmates noticing the argument. He said CO McBride was standing about four feet away from them at the time, but did not intervene. Keys said he eventually became very upset and hit claimant in the eye. Keys said he did not threaten claimant before he hit him, nor did claimant threaten him. Keys did not raise his fist before hitting claimant, and he only hit him once. Keys said claimant did not swing back, and they both remained standing. Keys expressed remorse at trial about how badly claimant's eye was injured. They had no previous or subsequent arguments or physical altercations. Claimant rested at the close of Keys' testimony.
Alan Goldstein, a retired civilian recreational program leader, testified on defendant's behalf. Goldstein had met claimant many times, because claimant played basketball frequently. Goldstein said that the basketball games were always competitive, but he heard nothing out of the ordinary during the game that day. He said there had never been any fights in the gym prior to that date, and that although there had certainly been many arguments about who was the better player those arguments never led to anything.
Goldstein said that when it was time for the inmates to return to their cells after the game, he heard claimant and Keys "trash-talking." He said they were not loud, and he did not hear anything that caused him to believe there would be a fight. He said they were right next to each other, neither had their fists raised, and there was no physical contact or pushing. He walked by them and into the slop sink room to put some mops away. He was in there for approximately 10 seconds, and when he came back out claimant had both hands over his eye, they were standing apart, and McBride had separated them.
CO McBride testified that at the time of the altercation he was processing inmates to be returned to their cells. He did not specifically notice claimant or Keys, nor did he hear any yelling, any arguments escalating, or any indication of behavior leading to a fight. He said he was standing in the hallway on the other side of the doorway from the waiting area when someone yelled there was a fight. He said he ran 15 to 20 feet into the waiting room to where he found Keys and claimant on the floor exchanging closed-fist punches. He said he broke up the fight and claimant and Keys were cuffed and escorted to the infirmary. Defendant rested its case at the close of McBride's testimony.
It is well-settled that the State must provide inmates with reasonable protection against foreseeable risks of attack by other inmates (Blake v State of New York, 259 AD2d 878 [3d Dept 1999]). Despite this obligation, however, the State is not the insurer of the safety of inmates, and the fact that an assault occurs does not give rise to the inference of negligence (Colon v State of New York, 209 AD2d 842 [3d Dept 1994]). In order to establish that the State is liable for such an assault, an inmate claimant must allege and ultimately prove that the State knew or should have known that there was a risk of harm to the claimant which was reasonably foreseeable and inadequately addressed (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247 ; see also Flaherty v State of New York, 296 NY 342 ). In other words, a claimant must prove one of the following: (1) that the State knew or should have known that claimant was at risk of being assaulted and yet failed to provide claimant with reasonable protection; (2) that the State knew or should have known that the assailant was prone to perpetrating such an assault and the State did not take proper precautionary measures; or (3) that the State had ample notice and opportunity to intervene but did not act (Sanchez, 99 NY2d at 252).
"[T]he State's duty to prisoners does not mandate unremitting surveillance in all circumstances, and does not render the State an insurer of inmate safety. When persons with dangerous criminal propensities are held in close quarters, inevitably there will be some risk of unpreventable assault, a risk the State cannot possibly eradicate. The mere occurrence of an inmate assault, without credible evidence that the assault was reasonably foreseeable, cannot establish the negligence of the State" (id. at 256).
The testimony of all the witnesses at trial was consistent that Keys' argument with claimant was relatively low-key, that no threats were made prior to Keys' punch, and that there was no indication prior to that point that there would be any physical altercation. No evidence was introduced which might have shown that defendant knew or should have known that claimant was in danger or that Keys was prone to perpetrating such an assault. Finally, claimant did not prove by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant had ample notice and an opportunity to intervene but did not act. To the contrary, it appears from the testimony that CO McBride acted effectively at the earliest opportunity once the "trash-talking" between claimant and Keys briefly escalated.
While claimant's injury was undeniably serious, and claimant was a likeable and credible witness, it is apparent that this was simply an unfortunate incident which could not have been prevented under the circumstances. Accordingly, Claim No. 129258 is hereby dismissed. Any and all other motions on which the Court may have previously reserved or which were not previously determined are hereby denied.
Let judgment be entered accordingly.
May 10, 2019
Binghamton, New York
CATHERINE C. SCHAEWE
Judge of the Court of Claims
1. All quotes herein are taken from the Court's notes of the proceedings, unless otherwise indicated.