New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
THOMPSON v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2020-053-005, Claim No. 131822

Synopsis

After a trial of this pro se claim alleging that claimant sustained injuries after an assault by another inmate, the Court dismissed the claim as claimant failed to establish that the State was negligent in permitting  a sudden and unprovoked assault to occur.

Case information

UID: 2020-053-005
Claimant(s): MICHAELTHOMPSON
Claimant short name: THOMPSON
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 131822
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: J. DAVID SAMPSON
Claimant's attorney: MICHAEL THOMPSON, Pro Se
Defendant's attorney: HON. LETITIA JAMES
New York State Attorney General
BY: Tamara Christie, Esq.
Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: May 12, 2020
City: Buffalo
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

Claimant Michael Thompson alleges that on May 15, 2018, he sustained personal injuries after being assaulted by another inmate while incarcerated at the Groveland Correctional Facility (Groveland) due to the negligence of correction officers employed by the State of New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). On August 6, 2018, claimant filed a claim with the Clerk of the Court of Claims and served a copy upon the Attorney General. On August 30, 2018, the State of New York (State) filed an answer denying the allegations in the claim.

On January 16, 2020, a trial was held utilizing video conference technology. Claimant testified on his behalf and in defense of the State testimony was provided by Correction Officer Hamilton (CO Hamilton) and Sergeant Seth Burnett (Sgt. Burnett).

FACTS

The claimant testified that on May 15, 2018, at approximately 7:00 p.m., he was sitting in his cube in the L-1 dormitory when he was approached by another inmate named Allen, who demanded that he open his locker. When claimant refused to do so, he testified that inmate Allen then told him that if he would not open his locker immediately that he would kill him. Claimant testified that he again refused Allen's demand and that he then struck claimant with his fist on the side of his head. He testified that Allen again demanded that he open his locker and again, the claimant refused. Claimant testified that Allen then grabbed him and threw him to the floor and continued to punch him on the side of his head. Claimant stated that he began to scream for help as the correction officer station was only 10 to 15 yards away from his cube. He claimed that his screams were not heard as CO Hamilton was not at his assigned station and was instead at a location further away called "L" Lobby. Claimant testified that Allen continued to punch, kick and choke claimant but he still refused to open his locker and Allen then left.

Claimant testified that once Allen left, he got up and proceeded past the station and was attempting to locate a correction officer in "L" Lobby to help him. He stated that before he reached "L" Lobby, Allen returned and dragged him back to his cube and proceeded to punch and beat him further. He testified that Allen left again and came back with a friend of claimant's named Eric, who convinced him to open his locker. He stated that he relented as he feared for his life and for Eric's life. Claimant testified that Allen told him to stay down on the floor so that he would not be seen and then took property from his locker and left. He alleged that as a result of the assault by Allen, he suffered significant injuries to his head, neck, back, stomach and kidneys and was experiencing recurring headaches and blurry vision.

Claimant testified that the following day he was playing horseshoes with some other inmates and told them about the assault. He stated that two of the inmates then approached Sgt. Burnett and told him about the assault involving claimant. Sgt. Burnett then approached and spoke to claimant and asked if he wanted to be placed in personal confinement for his safety. Claimant declined this offer but then did agree to move that day from the L-1 to the C-2 dormitory. He testified that before the move he went to the infirmary for treatment and that photos were taken of his injuries and he was prescribed ibuprofen.(1) Claimant stated that he returned to the infirmary four times as he was experiencing problems seeing out of his left eye. He testified that he also had trouble breathing for a couple of weeks and thought that he had a fractured rib, indicating that an x-ray was taken which was negative. Claimant testified that he had nightmares of the incident for some time and the pain he experienced in his left eye, chest, back and neck stopped in a month. He stated that he was given medication for his headaches and nightmares. Claimant testified that the headaches stopped in three months and the nightmares ceased in four months.

CO Hamilton testified that he has been employed by DOCCS at Groveland for the past seven years. He stated that on May 15, 2018, he was assigned as the dorm correction officer in the L-1 dormitory. He indicated that there are about 80 inmates assigned to this dormitory. CO Hamilton described the bubble as an elevated station that has a 2 foot wall surrounding it and it is a restricted area to the inmates. He testified that although it is elevated, he is not able to view the entire dormitory and as a result is required to perform rounds every 30 minutes to insure the integrity of the dormitory and the safety of inmates. CO Hamilton testified that he did not leave the L-1 dormitory unsupervised on this date. He also testified that he was not aware of any safety concerns regarding inmate Allen prior to the incident involving claimant.

On cross-examination, CO Hamilton testified that he did not hear claimant screaming on May 15, 2018. He testified that if he had been seated at the station at the time of the incident that he would have been able to see claimant's cube. CO Hamilton testified that if he was on rounds at the time that the assault occurred, he would not have been able to observe it. On redirect examination, CO Hamilton was shown the log book entries for that date (Exhibit A), which indicated that at 7:00 p.m., the time of the assault, CO Hamilton was on rounds.

Sgt. Burnett testified that he has been employed by DOCCS for 21 years and has been a sergeant for the past three years. On May 15, 2018, he was the L-block sergeant. He testified that it was his responsibility to perform an investigation of the assault of claimant by inmate Allen. Sgt. Burnett stated that claimant was reluctant to provide him with any information regarding the circumstances of the assault and would not identify the inmate who assaulted him. He testified that he then escorted claimant to the infirmary. Sgt. Burnett was not aware of any security complaints about inmate Allen prior to this incident and he was not aware of any history of animosity between claimant and inmate Allen. On cross-examination, Sgt. Burnett stated that he interviewed claimant on a second occasion after he was moved to C-block and it was only then that claimant identified his assailant as inmate Allen.

LAW AND ANALYSIS

The law is well settled that when the State assumes custody of an inmate, it owes that inmate a duty to use reasonable care to safeguard him from foreseeable risks of harm (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247 [2002]). This duty of care to prevent foreseeable risks of harm is defined not simply by actual notice but also by constructive notice, i.e., what the State " knew or had reason to know" and to what the State "is or should be aware" (Id. at 255). However, the State is not an insurer of inmate safety and a claimant must demonstrate a failure by the State to take minimal protective measures when it knows or has reason to know of the likelihood that the harm suffered was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the State's acts or omissions (Melendez v State of New York, 283 AD2d 729 [3d Dept 2001], appeal dismissed 97 NY2d 649 [2001]).

In order to determine whether the State provided reasonable care to protect an inmate from assault by another inmate, evidence establishing that DOCCS knew that claimant had prior encounters with the assailant or had listed the assailant on an "enemies list" may be considered (Elnandes v State of New York, 11 AD3d 828, 829 [3d Dept 2004]). In addition, evidence establishing that DOCCS had previously known that the assailant was a "dangerous prisoner" may also be considered to establish actual notice (Auger v State of New York, 263 AD2d 929, 930 [3d Dept 1999]).

The Court of Appeals has held that the State's liability for negligent supervision with respect to an assault on an inmate by another inmate is not limited to situations of actual notice. The State also has the duty to protect inmates from reasonably foreseeable risks of harm based upon "what the State reasonably should have known--for example, from its knowledge of risks to a class of inmates based on the institution's expertise or prior experience, or from its own policies and practices designed to address such risks" (Sanchez, 99 NY2d 247 at 254).

In order to determine whether claimant has met his burden of proof, the Court, as fact-finder, must weigh the evidence presented and assess the credibility of the testimony of claimant and of the two correction officers. The existence of a dangerous condition is a question of fact to be determined based upon the particular facts and circumstances of the case (Lupa v City of Oswego, 117 AD3d 1418 [4th Dept 2014]; Trincere v County of Suffolk, 90 NY2d 976, 977 [1997]). Upon listening to the testimony of claimant, CO Hamilton and Sgt. Burnett and observing their demeanor while doing so, I find that claimant and the two correction officers testified credibly about the circumstances surrounding this incident. As such, I make the initial factual finding that on May 15, 2018, claimant was assaulted by inmate Allen.

Claimant contends that the State was negligent by reason of the fact that CO Hamilton was not at the station that was near his cube at the time of the assault. However, it has been held that the fact that a correction officer is not present at the exact time and place of an assault does not rise to an inference of negligence without additional evidence establishing that facility officials had notice of a foreseeable dangerous situation (Colon v State of New York, 209 AD2d 842 [3d Dept 1994]; Padgett v State of New York, 163 AD2d 914 (4th Dept 1990), lv denied 76 NY2d 711 [1990]).

CO Hamilton testified that he could not observe the entire dormitory from his position at the station and was required to perform rounds every 30 minutes in order to maintain order and safety of the inmates residing in the dormitory. The evidence at trial did not establish that DOCCS had any prior knowledge that inmate Allen presented a foreseeable danger to claimant or any other inmate. In addition, no testimony or other evidence was presented to demonstrate that assaults by other inmates had previously occurred in L-1 dormitory that would constitute constructive notice to DOCCS and create a factual issue as to whether additional measures were necessary to protect inmates from assaults by other inmates such as continuously manning the station or assigning additional correction officers to L-1 dormitory. It was evident from claimant's testimony that the attack upon claimant by inmate Allen was sudden, unprovoked and unanticipated. Finally, claimant testified that in order to keep CO Hamilton from observing Allen's actions against claimant, Allen directed him to remain on the floor while he took property from his locker.

After consideration of all of the testimony and other evidence, I find that claimant has failed to establish that the State was negligent in permitting the sudden and unprovoked assault of claimant to occur. The fact that claimant was assaulted during his incarceration is a tragic and unfortunate event but that cannot on its own form the basis to establish liability against the State. As a result, the Court determines that claimant has failed to establish by a preponderance of the credible evidence that the State was negligent in connection with this claim.

Accordingly, this claim is hereby dismissed. Any and all other evidentiary rulings or motions on which the Court may have previously reserved or which were not previously determined, are hereby denied.

Let judgment be entered accordingly.

May 12, 2020

Buffalo, New York

J. DAVID SAMPSON

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. The claimant did not produce these photographs or any other exhibits during the trial.