New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
CASTRO v. STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2020-058-037, Claim No. 125758, Motion No. M-95728

Synopsis

Motion in limine prohibiting Claimant from introducing evidence at a liability only trial of Defendant's failure to ensure Claimant was secured by a seatbelt in the DOCCS van granted; alternative request to introduce demonstrative evidence denied as academic.

Case information

UID: 2020-058-037
Claimant(s): DAVID CASTRO
Claimant short name: CASTRO
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 125758
Motion number(s): M-95728
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: CATHERINE E. LEAHY-SCOTT
Claimant's attorney: Kenny & Kenny, PLLC
By: Michael P. Kenny, Esq.
Defendant's attorney: Hon. Letitia James, New York State Attorney General
By: Bonnie Gail Levy, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: August 26, 2020
City: Albany
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

Claimant David Castro filed this Claim on March 9, 2015, seeking damages for personal injuries allegedly sustained as a result of a motor vehicle accident that occurred on January 29, 2014. This accident occurred while Claimant, an inmate in custody of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), was being transported by a DOCCS vehicle from Samaritan Medical Center to Cape Vincent Correctional Facility. The DOCCS vehicle in which Claimant was a passenger was stopped behind a New York State Police vehicle and was hit from behind by another vehicle.

The Claim alleges that Defendant was "negligent, careless and reckless in failing to properly protect and secure Claimant . . . during his transport in the State vehicle" (Affirmation of Bonnie Gail Levy, Esq., Assistant Attorney General, Ex 1 [Claim] 25). Claimant specified in his bill of particulars that Defendant was negligent for, among other things, "[f]ailing to properly secure [him] while [he] was a passenger and inmate within the charge of the State" and in "[f]ailing to provide seat belts or other safety equipment to prevent [him] from being thrown in the event of a collision or other jolting event" (see id. Ex 3 [Bill of Particulars] 5[g]-[h]). Additionally, Claimant testified at his examination before trial that the correction officers transporting him from Samaritan Hospital to Cape Vincent Correctional Facility did not put a seatbelt on him during transport (see id. Ex 4 [EBT Tr.] at 42 line 23 through 43 line 2).

A trial as to liability only for the above Claim is scheduled to commence on October 29, 2020. Defendant now moves to prohibit Claimant from offering any evidence with respect to the non-use of a seatbelt at the liability trial or, alternatively, an order permitting Defendant to introduce demonstrative evidence showing how an individual who is shackled and handcuffed can affix a seatbelt in a DOCCS van him or herself. Claimant opposes the motion.

Vehicle and Traffic Law 1229-c establishes penalties for the failure to use seatbelts when required. "[A]uthorized emergency vehicles, as such term is defined in section one hundred one of this chapter" are exempt from this section (id. 1229-c [4]). An "[a]uthorized emergency vehicle" is defined in Vehicle and Traffic Law 101 to include "[e]very . . . correction vehicle." Thus, DOCCS vehicles are exempt from the seatbelt requirement and corresponding penalties set forth in Vehicle and Traffic Law 1229-c.

It is well settled that the failure to use a seat belt is inadmissible in determining the issue of liability under common law negligence (see Spier v Barker, 35 NY2d 444, 449-450 [1974]). Additionally, Vehicle and Traffic Law 1229-c (8) provides that "[n]on-compliance with [Vehicle and Traffic Law 1229-c] shall not be admissible as evidence in any civil action in a court of law in regard to the issue of liability." Thus, in a decision affirmed by the Fourth Department, Court of Claims Judge Nicholas V. Midey, Jr. held that since Vehicle and Traffic Law 1229-c (8) prohibits the introduction of

"any evidence of seat belt non-use in any civil action with regard to the issue of liability in situations where seat belt use is required under 1229-c, it is inconceivable that evidence of non-use could then be admissible to establish negligence in cases where, as here, seat belt usage is not mandated"

(Figueroa v State of New York, UID No. 2003-009-61 [Ct Cl, Midey, Jr., J., Dec. 18, 2003], affd 19 AD3d 1053 [4th Dept 2005]). Analogous to the instant Claim, the claimant in Figueroa was an inmate who was allegedly injured when the DOCCS vehicle transporting him was involved in a motor vehicle accident.

Courts have consistently followed Figueroa and held that evidence of the failure to use seatbelts could not be used or admitted into evidence to establish the liability of the Defendant for the alleged failure to safely transport an inmate (see e.g. Kitt v State of New York, UID No. 2009-030-024 [Ct Cl, Scuccimarra, J., Aug. 25, 2009]; Mallory v State of New York, UID No. 2007-018-583 [Ct Cl, Fitzpatrick, J., Oct. 1, 2007]; see also Delacruz v State of New York, UID No. 2018-018-927 [Ct Cl, Fitzpatrick J., April 6, 2018]; Lockett v State of New York, UID No. 2005-013-050 [Ct Cl, Patti, J., Dec. 19, 2005]).

The cases cited by Claimant to support his contention that evidence of non-seatbelt use is admissible at a liability trial are inapposite. As an initial matter both Bennett v State of New York (UID No. 2005-010-016 [Ct Cl, Ruderman, J., Feb. 23, 2005]) and Nurse v State of New York (UID No. 2001-010-070 [Ct Cl, Ruderman J., Sept. 5, 2001]) were decided before the Fourth Department affirmed Judge Midey's holding in Figueroa that the failure to use seatbelts could not be used or admitted into evidence to establish liability. Additionally, although the trial decisions in Bennett and Nurse refer to non-seatbelt use, there is no evidence that the defendant in either case sought to preclude evidence of non-seatbelt use prior to trial.

Similarly, Claimant's reliance upon on DOCCS Directive 4901 entitled "Transporting Prisoners" and Directive 4918 entitled "Transfer, health care" to support his argument that Defendant is subjected to a heightened duty to protect inmates during transport is misguided. Initially, the Court notes that neither party has provided a copy of these directives with their motion papers. Nevertheless, even assuming that these directives require DOCCS to fasten an inmate's seatbelt during transport in a DOCCS vehicle, such directives would impose a greater standard of care upon Defendant than that imposed by law (see Vehicle and Traffic Law 1229-c) and, thus, would be inadmissible (see Rivera v New York City Tr. Auth., 77 NY2d 322, 329 [1991], rearg denied 77 NY2d 990 [1991]; Conrad v County of Westchester, 259 AD2d 724, 725 [2d Dept 1999]; see also Asantewaa v City of New York, 90 AD3d 537, 538 [1st Dept 2011]).

In sum, this Court is bound by the Fourth Department's determination affirming Judge Midey's decision in Figueroa. Accordingly, Claimant is prohibited from introducing evidence of Defendant's failure to ensure Claimant was secured by a seatbelt in the DOCCS van to establish Defendant's liability for negligent transportation of Claimant, an inmate. In light of the foregoing, the Court denies Claimant's alternative request to submit demonstrative evidence as academic.

Accordingly, it is hereby

ORDERED that Defendant's Motion M-95728 is granted insofar as Claimant is prohibited from introducing evidence of Defendant's failure to ensure Claimant was secured by a seatbelt in the DOCCS van to establish Defendant's liability for negligent transportation of Claimant; and it is further

ORDERED that Defendant's Motion M-95728 is otherwise denied.

August 26, 2020

Albany, New York

CATHERINE E. LEAHY-SCOTT

Judge of the Court of Claims

The Court considered the following papers in deciding this motion:

(1) Notice of Motion in Limine, dated July 29, 2020.

(2) Affirmation of Bonnie Gail Levy, Esq., Assistant Attorney General, in Support of Motion in Limine, dated July 29, 2020, with attachments.

(3) Affirmation of Michael P. Kenny, Esq., in Opposition to Defendant's Motion in Limine, dated August 11, 2020.

(4) Affirmation of Bonnie Gail Levy, Esq., Assistant Attorney General, in Reply to Claimant's Opposition to Defendant's Motion in Limine, dated August 17, 2020.