New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

LEWIS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-031-001, , Motion No. M-63652


Synopsis


Late claim motion alleging negligence for failure to prevent an inmate on inmate assault.

Case Information

UID:
2001-031-001
Claimant(s):
ROBERT LEWIS
Claimant short name:
LEWIS
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):

Motion number(s):
M-63652
Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
RENÉE FORGENSI MINARIK
Claimant's attorney:
MATUSICK, SPADAFORA & VERRASTROBY: RICHARD E. UPDEGROVE, ESQ.
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER
Attorney General of the State of New York
BY: WENDY E. MORCIO, ESQ.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
October , 2001
City:
Rochester
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision


This is the motion of Robert Lewis for permission to file a late claim pursuant to §10.6 of the Court of Claims Act (the"CCA").[1]
His proposed claim alleges negligence stemming from an assault upon him by another inmate at Wende Correctional Facility on August 12, 2000. Claimant asserts that Defendant failed to take proper precautions to protect him from the assault, and that Defendant failed to intervene once correction officers became aware of thealtercation between the two inmates. Claimant states that his assailant was HIV positive. On August 12, 2000, Claimant and this inmate allegedly had a verbal altercation which took place in the presence of at least one correction officer. This altercation escalated to a point at which this other inmate attacked and bit Claimant. Claimant alleges that he has suffered both physical and emotional injuries, stemming from his wounds and the resulting fear that he might have contracted AIDS during the altercation.

Subdivision 6 of §10 of the CCA enumerates six factors to be weighed in connection with a late claim motion: (1) whether the delay was excusable; (2) whether Claimant has any other remedy; (3) whether Defendant had notice of the essential facts constituting the claim; (4) whether Defendant had an opportunity to investigate; (5) whether Defendant would be substantially prejudiced; and (6) whether the claim appears to be meritorious. This list is not exhaustive and the presence or absence of any one factor is not dispositive. Rather, the Court in its discretion balances these factors in making its determination. (Bay Terrace Coop. Section IV v. New York State Employees' Retirement Sys. Policemen's and Firemen's Retirement Sys., 55 NY2d 979).

As to his excuse for failing to file a timely claim, Claimant, who only recently retained counsel, asserts that he is not an attorney and had no access to the legal library where he was incarcerated during the statutory period. He also states that he suffered from extreme depression for several months after the attack and was, therefore, unable to properly file a timely Claim. Claimant failed to provide documentation from a medical care provider that he was either physically or mentally incapacitated. However, I do take notice of the fact that such support might be difficult for an inmate to obtain. The fact that Claimant is not a lawyer, or that he is incarcerated does not justify his failure to comply with the time requirements of the CCA. (Bommarito v. State of New York, 35 AD2d 458; Plate v. State of New York, 92 Misc. 2d 1033, 1037-1038). This factor, therefore, tends to weigh in favor of Defendant.

Claimant does not have an alternate remedy available to him and this factor weighs in his favor.

The next three factors covering notice, opportunity to investigate and prejudice are closely related and may be considered together. (Brewer v. State of New York, 176 Misc 2d 337, 342). Defendant had notice of the altercation. Defendant's agent, C.O. Dorsey, issued Claimant a written misbehavior report that same day. (Defendant's Affidavit in Opposition, Ex. A). Defendant conducted a disciplinary hearing regarding the incident on August 16, 2000. (Proposed Claim, Ex. A). Claimant also alleges, and Defendant does not dispute, the existence of documentation in Claimant's medical file which presumably supports the Claimant's assertions of notice to Defendant. This medical file is created and maintained by officers or agents of Defendant.

In support of its position that it would be prejudiced by permitting the claim at this time, Defendant points out that C.O. Dorsey, whom Claimant alleges witnessed the incident, has retired and is no longer an employee of the State. Defendant does not allege, however, that C.O. Dorsey's whereabouts are unknown, or that he can not be contacted. Further, the Inmate Misbehavior Report references a second witness, C.O. Olsen. Defendant did not discuss C.O. Olsen's availability. Taken as a whole it does not appear that Defendant's ability to investigate or defend this action has been significantly prejudiced.

The final and most important factor to be considered is merit. It is well settled that the State is required to use reasonable care to protect the inmates of its correctional facilities from foreseeable risk of harm ( see, Flaherty v. State of New York, 296 NY 342; Dizak v. State of New York, 124 AD2d 329; Sebastiano v. State of New York, 112 AD2d 562). Foreseeable risk of harm includes the risk of attack by other prisoners (see, Littlejohn v. State of New York, 218 AD2d 833). However, "[t]he State is not an insurer of inmate safety; its duty is to exercise reasonable care to prevent foreseeable attacks by other inmates" (Padgett v. State of New York, 163 AD2d 914). The mere occurrence of an unprovoked, unexplained attack by a fellow inmate, with whom Claimant had no prior contact, does not give rise to an inference of negligence, absent a showing that prison officials had notice of a foreseeable dangerous situation (see, Stanley v.State of New York, 239 AD2d 700: Roudette v. State of New York, 224 AD2d 808; Leibach v. State of New York, 215 AD2d 978; Padgett v. State of New York, supra).

Generally, liability in a claim asserting negligence on the part of the State when one inmate assaults another inmate must be predicated upon one of the following grounds: (1) the victim was a known risk and the State failed to provide protection (Sebastiano v. State of New York, supra); (2) the State had notice that the assailant was particularly prone to perpetrating such an assault and failed to take precautionary measures (Littlejohn v. State of New York, supra; Wilson v. State of New York, 36 AD2d 559), or (3) the State had ample notice and ample opportunity to intervene but failed to act (Schittino v. State of New York, 262 AD2d 824; Huertas v. State of New York, 84 AD2d 650).

In this case, Lewis asserts two theories of liability against the State. The first is that the inmate that assaulted him should have been segregated from the general inmate population (specifically because of his HIV positive status, and more generally because his attacker was "violent"). This argument, as Defendant correctly points out, is without merit. Inmates may not be segregated merely because they are HIV positive. (Nolley v. County of Erie 776 F. Supp. 715). To the extent that Claimant believes his assailant should have been segregated for other reasons, the proposed claim is far from clear on this point. Claimant alleges that his assailant was "violent" and that Defendant, or its agents, were aware of that alleged fact. Claimant's motion papers do not allege that he had any previous contact with his attacker. The record before me is otherwise devoid of any specific allegations of violence on the part of Claimant's attacker directed at other inmates at the facility, facility staff, or Claimant. The simple bald assertion that the assailant was violent and Defendant knew it, is not sufficient to create even a presumption of foreseeable risk of harm (see, Matter of Garguiolo v. New York State Thruway Auth., 145 AD2d 915).

Claimant's second theory is that Defendant should have acted more quickly to break up the altercation. However, Claimant has failed to state a prima facie claim of negligence for failure to intercede. Claimant alleges that officer Dorsey "observed the argument [between claimant and his assailant] and did not intercede. ... [T]he person who started the argument with the claimant then walked up to the claimant and started to bite claimant in the face". Claimant further alleges that: "Officer Dorsey did not break up the fight. Instead he simply yelled at the inmate who attacked the claimant."

The claim itself indicates that the physical part of the confrontation was short and began with claimant being bitten on the face. There is no indication that the assault was prolonged, or that Claimant was bitten after a reasonable time for officers to react had passed. The claim, therefore, implies that the duty to intercede emanated from the officers awareness of the verbal confrontation between Claimant and his assailant. The law recognizes no such duty. As other Courts have recognized "prisons are noisy and raised voices in arguments are commonplace." (Taylor v. State of New York, Claim No. 87532, Ruderman J, 10/19/00). The mere fact that two inmates are arguing does not, without more, require intercession on the part of correctional personnel.

I take notice that both the allegations in the claim, and the inmate misbehavior report written by C.O. Dorsey, demonstrate that C.O. Dorsey gave the inmates a direct order to "break it up" and waited for backup before any physical intervention was attempted. Merely because an officer did not prevent or timely stop an attack does not establish negligence (see, Pierrelouis v. State of New York, 255 AD2d 824 [claimant failed to establish that defendant breached a duty to claimant to prevent or timely stop the fight from occurring and failed to demonstrate a lack of reasonable care]). There was no showing that C. O. Dorsey's conduct was unreasonable, or deviated in any way from the standards which control his conduct. In sum, the Court finds that Dorsey had no reason to believe that Claimant was about to be attacked and bitten and that Dorsey's actions in attempting to stop the assault were appropriate (see, Schittino v. State of New York, supra [inmate fight escalated quickly and was not reasonably foreseeable; court rejected claim that correction officer's failure to intervene was negligent]).

Upon reviewing and balancing all of the factors enumerated in CCA §10(6), I find that they weigh in favor of Defendant. Claimant's motion for permission to file a late claim is therefore denied.


October , 2001
Rochester, New York

HON. RENÉE FORGENSI MINARIK
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1] This motion was argued before me on August 29, 2001. The papers submitted and reviewed include:
  1. Notice of motion dated June 8, 2001;
  2. Affidavit of Robert Lewis dated April 24, 2001;
  3. Proposed claim of Robert Lewis dated April 24, 2001 and attached exhibit; and
  4. Affidavit of Wendy Morcio, Esq., dated August 23, 2001, and attached exhibits.