New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

BENNETT v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2005-010-016, Claim No. 103791


Synopsis


Claim that inmates were not seatbelted in facility van strained credulity.

Case Information

UID:
2005-010-016
Claimant(s):
DELVILLE BENNETT, JOSEPH CURRY, AL EVANS, TIMOTHY GOODE AND MICHAEL SMITH
Claimant short name:
BENNETT
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
103791
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
Terry Jane Ruderman
Claimant's attorney:
ROBERT W. NISHMAN, ESQ.
By: Panken Besterman Winer Becker & ShermanHoward Sherman, Esq., Of Counsel
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER
Attorney General for the State of New YorkBy: Rachel Zaffrann, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
February 23, 2005
City:
White Plains
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision


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 work.

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 law" (T:112).[1] 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 returned.

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 injured.

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 (Ex. A).[2]

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 (see CPLR 3117[a][3][iv]; Ramkinson v New York City Hous. Auth., 269 AD2d 256). Accordingly, the Court did not consider Williamson's EBT in its determination. [3]

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.


February 23, 2005
White Plains, New York

HON. TERRY JANE RUDERMAN
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1] References to the trial transcript are preceded by the letter "T."
[2] Portions of the police accident report were received into evidence over claimants' objections. It is well settled that those sections of the report regarding the observations of an officer who is under a police duty to truthfully report such information are admissible (Johnson v Lutz, 253 NY 124).
[3]In any event, as noted by claimant, Williamson's EBT stated that he had no recollection as to whether the inmates were belted prior to the accident (p. 19, L 4-7).