On November 20, 2000, claimants, inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility
(Sing Sing) were traveling in a van, driven by Correction Officer Richard
Williamson, from the facility to St. Agnes Hospital in White Plains, New York.
As they were stopped at the entrance to the Sprain Brook Parkway, the van was
hit in the rear by a car driven by John Baker. There is no claim of negligent
operation of the van; rather claimants contend that they were not seatbelted as
required by New York State law and Department of Corrections (DOCS) directives
and that this failure was a proximate cause of their injuries. The
circumstances surrounding the accident are not in dispute. The critical issue
is whether the inmates were seatbelted. The trial of this claim was bifurcated
and this Decision pertains solely to the issue of liability.
John Baker, the driver of the car which struck the van in the rear, testified
that he was proceeding behind the van onto the entrance ramp of the Sprain Brook
Parkway when, believing that the van was about to merge ahead, Baker accelerated
to a speed of five mph. The van, however, remained stationary and Baker's
automobile hit the van in the rear. The initial impact was light, followed by a
second impact as the front of the Honda went under the van's rear bumper. A New
York State trooper responded to the accident scene and Baker observed the
trooper look into the van. Baker, however, was not able to see whether the
inmates were seatbelted. Baker's wife came to the scene on her way to
Each claimant testified that the seatbelts were not fastened prior to the
accident and the emergency room records state the same (Exs. 13, 14, 16, 18,
23). Delville Bennett testified that the van was equipped with lap seatbelts;
however, he did not ask to be seatbelted by the correction officers. According
to Bennett, he had traveled in vans on two or three occasions prior to the
accident and had never been seatbelted. Although he was familiar with Sing
Sing's grievance procedure, he never filed a grievance regarding this purported
failure. Bennett had initially proceeded pro se and his Notice of Intention to
File a Claim stated:
"On November 20th, 2000, on the way to Saint Agnes hospital at about 8:23 a.m.,
collided from the back of the Van by car. My person was in chain which make's
it hard for me to protect my head area where I sustained my injuries."
(Ex. M). Notably, Bennett's Notice of Intention indicated he was "in chain",
but he did not allege that he was not seatbelted. Similarly, Timothy Goode
testified that it was important to him to be seatbelted because, "[t]hat's the
He, however, also did not
complain to the correction officers about their alleged non-compliance with the
law. Goode maintains that he filed a grievance after the accident; however he
offered no proof of this filing. Also, Al Evans testified that he did not
complain to the officers about not being seatbelted nor did he file a grievance
regarding this issue.
There were also notable inconsistencies among the inmates' testimony. For
example, Bennett estimated that, at the time of the accident, the van was
traveling on the highway at a speed of 18 to 22 mph and Bennett testified that
they returned to Sing Sing in the evening after dark. Joseph Curry testified
that the van was not moving at the time of the accident. At trial, Curry did
not recall when they returned to Sing Sing; at his EBT, he testified that they
came back between 3:30 and 4:00 p.m. At trial, Evans testified that they
returned to Sing Sing after dinner; at his EBT he could not recall when they had
Curry's trial testimony also varied from his examination before trial (EBT) in
several respects. At trial, he testified that he was seated in the middle row
of the van next to two others; at his EBT he stated that he was in the aisle
seat of the middle row next to one inmate. At trial, he could not remember
whether the correction officers asked the inmates if they were injured in the
accident; at his EBT, he testified that the correction officers made such
inquiry. Evans testified that he was seated in the aisle seat of the middle
row, the same seat that Curry had testified was his seat.
Claimant Michael Smith testified that he has a bad memory because he takes
insulin. Nonetheless, he recalled speaking to a female State trooper and he
supposedly remembered that Baker's wife had walked to the accident scene in
"house shoes" (T:134-35).
Correction Officer Henry Brinson, a transportation correction officer at Sing
Sing for 15 years prior to his retirement three years ago, testified that he was
responsible for taking inmates, in vans or station wagons, from the facility to
outside appointments. On November 20, 2000, he and Correction Officer Richard
Williamson transported five inmates in a 1999 Dodge van. While stopped on the
ramp, waiting to enter the Sprain Brook Parkway, they were hit in the rear by
another vehicle traveling no more than 10 mph. It was a light impact and the
van did not move forward. After the impact, he asked the inmates if they were
Brinson testified that the inmates had been handcuffed with waist chains,
shackled in leg irons, and restrained by lap type seatbelts. While he had no
specific recollection of putting the seatbelts on the inmates, he maintained
that he always followed his usual practice and procedure and DOCS rules to
seatbelt inmates before leaving the facility. According to Brinson, supervisors
enforce these rules by performing spot checks and, if he did not follow DOCS
rules, he could face disciplinary charges.
Suzanne Guacci, a retired State trooper, testified that she responded to the
accident scene. She explained her standard practice and procedure. First, she
notified the dispatcher of her location. Then, she secured the safety of the
vehicle. Next, she determined if there were any injuries. Depending on the
circumstances, she would call for an ambulance or a tow truck. She then
gathered information for her accident report. If a DOCS vehicle was involved,
she would take precautions to ensure that the inmates did not flee by looking
for handcuffs, leg braces and seatbelts.
When Guacci arrived at the accident scene, she observed the DOCS van and
climbed into it to ascertain whether the inmates needed medical attention.
Guacci observed that all of the inmates were seatbelted with an across the chest
harness. She completed a Police Accident Report and documented this information
Guacci explained that this accident stood out in her mind because it involved
a DOCS van. She specifically recalled establishing that the inmates were belted
because it impacted her own safety inside the van and the risk of the inmates'
flight. She had no specific recollection of how many rows there were in the van
or the number of inmates in each row.
Defendant offered into evidence the examination before trial (EBT) testimony
of Correction Officer Williamson, who retired since the accident and failed to
appear at trial pursuant to defendant's subpoena. However, defendant did not
make the requisite showing to warrant receiving the EBT into evidence
CPLR 3117[a][iv]; Ramkinson v New York City Hous. Auth.
269 AD2d 256). Accordingly, the Court did not consider Williamson's EBT in its
Upon consideration of all the evidence, including listening to the witnesses
testify and observing their demeanor as they did so, the Court finds a lack of
credible evidence to establish that the correction officers did not comply with
DOCS directives requiring that the inmates be seatbelted. While the testimony
of the inmates was riddled with inconsistencies, the testimony of the officers
was consistent and forthright. Significantly, Brinson, who was employed by DOCS
for 15 years, was aware that supervisors preformed spot checks and his
non-compliance with DOCS rules could result in disciplinary charges. Also,
Guacci's testimony regarding her inspection of the inmates' seatbelts to ensure
her own safety and their risk of flight was most persuasive. Accordingly, the
Court finds claimants have failed to meet their burden of proof and, defendant's
motion to dismiss, upon which decision was reserved, is now GRANTED.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED DISMISSING CLAIM NO. 103791.