New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
JOHNSON v. STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2020-058-001, Claim No. 124907

Synopsis

Claim alleging loss/destruction of photographs of loved ones dismissed after trial on the grounds that the photographs lack fair market value and no award of damages can be made for sentimental harm.

Case information

UID: 2020-058-001
Claimant(s): AARON JOHNSON
Claimant short name: JOHNSON
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 124907
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: CATHERINE E. LEAHY-SCOTT
Claimant's attorney: Aaron Johnson, Pro Se
Defendant's attorney: Hon. Letitia James, Attorney General
By: Thomas Trace, Esq., Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: January 3, 2020
City: Albany
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

Pro se Claimant Aaron Johnson, an inmate in the custody of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), seeks damages for the loss and/or destruction of 20 of his photographs while incarcerated at Mid-State Correctional Facility. The trial of this Claim was conducted by videoconference on December 4, 2019, with the parties appearing at Marcy Correctional Facility and the Court presiding in Albany, New York. Claimant testified on his own behalf; Defendant called one witness. Claimant offered no exhibits and Defendant offered one exhibit, which was received into evidence by stipulation. After considering all testimony and evidence received at trial and reviewing the applicable law and arguments made by the parties, the Court dismisses the Claim.

A search of Claimant's cell at Mid-State Correctional Facility was conducted on February 21, 2014. Claimant testified that, following the search of his cell, he was informed by Correction Officer Cynthia Zegarelli, one of the officers who performed the search of his cell, that 20 of his photographs were placed in his "30-day bucket."(1) At a later date, Claimant attempted to retrieve these 20 photographs; but they were not in his 30-day bucket and could not be located. Correction Officer Zegarelli corroborated Claimant's testimony that the 20 photographs were lost and could not be located. Claimant testified that the photographs depicted his loved ones, including family members and friends.

On or about February 27, 2014 Claimant filed an Inmate Claim Form with DOCCS seeking reimbursement for these lost photographs (Ex A). Claimant's claim was disapproved as "items of sentimental value are not reimbursed" (Ex A2).

Following the presentation of Claimant's case, Defendant moved for judgment as a matter of law dismissing the Claim on the ground that the Claimant's photographs were of sentimental value for which an award of damages could not be made. Claimant opposed Defendant's motion. Defendant reiterated its application at the close of its case, and the Court reserved decision on all applications during trial.

The State as a bailee of an inmate's personal property owes a common law duty to secure the property in its possession (see Pollard v State of New York, 173 AD2d 906, 907 [3d Dept 1991]). A rebuttable presumption of negligence arises where it is established that the property was delivered to the defendant with the understanding that it would be returned, and that the defendant failed to return the property or returned it in a damaged condition (see Tweedy v Bonnie Castle Yacht Basin, Inc., 73 AD3d 1455, 1455-1456 [4th Dept 2010]; Ramirez v City of White Plains, 35 AD3d 698, 698 [2d Dept 2006]; Feuer Hide & Skin Corp. v Kilmer, 81 AD2d 948, 949 [3d Dept 1981]; Weinberg v D-M Rest. Corp., 60 AD2d 550, 550 [1st Dept 1977]).

The general rule for damages awarded for lost or damaged property is "the difference in the fair market value thereof in its condition as delivered (to the bailee) versus its condition as returned" (Matter of Terranova v State of New York, 111 Misc 2d 1089, 1097 [Ct Cl 1982]; see also Phillips v Catania, 155 AD2d 866 [4th Dept 1989]). This Court has routinely held that although family photographs have sentimental value to a claimant, they have no fair market value upon which an award can be made (see e.g. Castillo v State of New York, UID No. 2018-038-111 [Ct Cl, DeBow, J., Sept. 11, 2018] [dismissing bailment claim premised upon the loss of eight family photographs]; Jones v State of New York, UID No. 2014-049-003 [Ct Cl, Weinstein, J., Jan. 16, 2014] [awarding summary judgment to the defendant on the claimant's bailment claim because "the items destroyed - a display consisting of family photographs - have only sentimental value [and] . . . claimant cannot recover for such sentimental harm, notwithstanding the personal importance of these pictures to him"]; West v State of New York, UID No. 2002-015-558 [Ct Cl, Collins, J., Aug. 12, 2002] ["(w)hile personal photographs may have sentimental value the law does not recognize or make allowance for a purely sentimental value which the property may have" (internal quotation mark and citation omitted)]).

Even assuming that Defendant was responsible for the loss of Claimant's photographs, no award of damages can be made for the sentimental harm caused by the loss of the personal photographs of Claimant's loved ones. Consequently, the Claim must be dismissed.

Accordingly, Defendant's motion to dismiss, made at the conclusion of trial, is now GRANTED, and the Claimant's Claim is DISMISSED in its entirety. The Chief Clerk is directed to enter judgment in favor of Defendant dismissing Claim No. 124907. Additionally, all motions not previously ruled upon are DENIED.

LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.

January 3, 2020

Albany, New York

CATHERINE E. LEAHY-SCOTT

Judge of the Court of Claims


1.

1 Correction Officer Zegarelli testified that, as a result of limitations placed upon the number of personal items an inmate can possess in his cell at any given time, a "30-day bucket" is a container which is utilized to allow inmates to exchange magazines, pictures, and books every 30 days.