New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

SWARTOUT v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2006-044-004, Claim No. 109557


Inmate’s claim for property which disappeared from his cell was dismissed for failure to establish defendant’s negligence, as claimant only suspected that prison officer allowed other inmates out of their cells without supervision, and had no other proof.

Case Information

Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

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

Cross-motion number(s):

Claimant’s attorney:
Defendant’s attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER, ATTORNEY GENERALBY: Joseph F. Romani, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
November 9, 2006

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

Claimant, an inmate appearing pro se, filed this claim against defendant State of New York (“defendant”), alleging defendant's negligence caused the disappearance of personal property from his cell at Elmira Correctional Facility (“Elmira”) on February 25, 2004. Trial of this claim was held at Elmira on October 25, 2006.
Claimant testified that he attended a mandatory work assignment from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on the day of the incident. He noticed the following items, with the listed values, were missing upon his return from the work assignment:
32 cassette tapes various prices totaling $306.27
1 COBY CV 160 headphones $ 8.75
1 pair NIKE Xcellerator sneakers $44.75
1 twin blanket $29.99
1 gold cross $ 8.99
1 gold chain $ 7.99
1 WAHL mustache trimmer $16.75
1 pair Smith's American boots $49.95
5 bottles of muslim oil $ 5.00
for a total loss of $478.44 (which amount includes shipping charges alleged by claimant in the amount of $46.00). Claimant filed an institutional claim, which was denied, as was his appeal of the denial.
At trial, claimant testified that his cell door was locked when he left. Upon his return to his cell, he found that his bed had been pulled all the way to the cell door, presumably through a process known as “fishing”, and that the substantial number of items listed above was missing. Claimant argued that defendant was negligent, and thus responsible for his loss, because the correction officer in charge of that cell block during that shift had a habit of allowing prisoners to remain outside their cells when he was on duty, and that he further consistently left the end gates of the gallery open.
Correction Officer Williams testified that he conducted the investigation into the loss of claimant's property. He indicated that proper procedure would have been for the end gates to be locked except for showers, cell moves, meals, and similar occasions. He further stated that whether the officer assigned to that block would stand on the gallery while the end gates were open would depend on the number of cell moves that day.
Unlike a bailment claim, where property is delivered from one person to another with the expectation it will be returned in the same condition, in this instance the property was in the possession and control of claimant, and was apparently stolen by a third party. Therefore, in order to establish a prima facie claim, claimant must show that defendant was negligent, and that such negligence allowed others to steal claimant's property (Wilson v State of New York, Ct Cl, Nov. 30, 2000, Sise, J., Claim No. 95019 [UID # 2000-028-0011]).
In this instance, claimant has failed to present evidence that defendant was negligent through the officer's actions, other than his own speculations that inmates were out of their cell without leave, and that the end gates must have been unlocked contrary to procedure. There are any number of possible scenarios for the loss of claimant's property. For example, an inmate in the opposite cell from claimant's could have been “fishing” and dragged claimant's bed to the door. Alternatively, inmates allowed out of their cells for one reason or another could have stolen the property while the assigned officer was supervising cell changes.
To the extent that claimant is alleging inadequate supervision of the area around his cell, it should be noted that prison administrators are given wide discretion to carry out their duties, specifically with respect to security related issues (Matter of Rivera v Smith, 63 NY2d 501, 512-513). Decisions regarding placement and duties of prison guards are matters of judgment (Wilson, supra), and claimant has failed to prove that the (unknown and speculative) actions of the officer in charge of the block on that day were either unreasonable or the cause of claimant's missing property.
The claim is therefore dismissed.
Any and all motions on which the court may have previously reserved or which were not previously determined, are hereby denied.
Let judgment be entered accordingly.

November 9, 2006
Binghamton, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims