New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

VALASQUEZ v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2008-009-181, Claim No. 97008


Synopsis


Claimant alleged that correction officers at Woodbourne Correctional Facility were negligent in their supervision of inmates, and that he was injured during a brawl as a result of this alleged negligent supervision. The Court found that claimant failed to establish that the State breached its duty to provide reasonable protection and dismissed the claim.

Case Information

UID:
2008-009-181
Claimant(s):
NELSON VALASQUEZ
Claimant short name:
VALASQUEZ
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
97008
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
NICHOLAS V. MIDEY JR.
Claimant’s attorney:
HENRY N. DIAZ, ESQ.
Defendant’s attorney:
HON. ANDREW M. CUOMO
Attorney General
BY: Carol A. Cocchiola, Esq.,
Assistant Attorney GeneralOf Counsel.
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
March 27, 2008
City:
Syracuse
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision

This claim involves allegations of negligent supervision of correction officers at Woodbourne Correctional Facility. As a direct result of this alleged negligent supervision, claimant, at the time an inmate at the facility, alleges that he suffered personal injuries during a large brawl which occurred shortly after midnight on June 28, 1997.

The trial of this claim was bifurcated, and this decision therefore addresses solely the issue of liability.

Claimant testified that the fight in which he was injured erupted following a physical confrontation between two other inmates, Pedro Baez, and Curtis Moore. He testified that these two inmates had been feuding throughout the previous day, June 27, 1997, and that as a member of the Inmate Liaison Committee at the facility, he had spoken to each of these inmates throughout that day and counseled them against any fighting.

Later that evening, claimant was in the recreation room (referred to as the “day room”) of his housing unit with approximately 60 other inmates, including inmates Baez and Moore. It is noted that Woodbourne Correctional Facility is a medium security facility with dormitory housing, and that the day room was equipped with two televisions, which the inmates were permitted to watch past midnight. Since Woodbourne is a medium security facility, inmates are not locked in their cells, but reside in “cubes”[1].

Claimant testified that shortly after midnight on June 28th, inmates Baez and Moore again exchanged words and a fight between the two inmates appeared likely. Claimant testified that the exchange between inmates Baez and Moore was observed by Correction Officer John Bankich, who was on duty in the day room at the time. According to claimant, Correction Officer Bankich approached the inmates, asked them if there was any problem between them, and that the inmates responded negatively. Correction Officer Bankich then directed the inmates to stay away from each other. Claimant testified that inmate Moore then left the day room, and that Correction Officer Bankich left the room immediately after inmate Moore’s departure.

According to claimant, approximately 10 minutes later, and before Correction Officer Bankich returned to the day room, a huge fight began, involving most, if not all, of the inmates in the day room. Claimant testified that he was stabbed in the arm by another inmate, leaving him no choice but to defend himself, and he therefore admittedly at that time became involved in this brawl. Claimant then testified that several minutes later, Correction Officer Bankich, accompanied by Correction Officer Timothy Edwards, returned to the day room and eventually restored order. Claimant identified his assailant as inmate Jamal Miller, with whom, he stated, had had no problems or difficulties prior to this incident.

Inmates Louis Garrestequi and Ramon Medina also testified on behalf of claimant. Although there was some discrepancy in the testimony of these two witnesses, as well as that of the claimant, as to the length of time that inmate Moore and Correction Officer Bankich were absent from the day room, the testimony of inmates Garrestequi and Medina substantially corroborated claimant’s testimony as to the events which transpired. In essence, inmates Garrestequi and Medina confirmed that inmates Baez and Moore had an ongoing dispute which had started the day before this incident occurred, that inmate Miller had left the day room before the fight occurred, that Correction Officer Bankich was not present in the day room when the fight broke out, and that he had been absent from the day room for several minutes prior thereto. These witnesses also added that shortly after inmate Moore left the day room, he had rushed back into the room with at least two other inmates and began to attack inmate Baez, precipitating the large scale fight.

Correction Officer Bankich also testified at trial, and his testimony, to a large extent, mirrored that of the claimant and his witnesses. Officer Bankich was on duty in the recreation area on the night of the incident and had noticed words being exchanged by inmates Baez and Moore. He testified that after observing the two inmates, he approached them and ordered the two inmates to stay away from each other for the balance of the night, and then ordered inmate Moore to go back to his “cube” in the dorm area. Although claimant had testified that Officer Bankich had left the day room immediately after inmate Moore, Officer Bankich testified that he remained in the day room for approximately two minutes after inmate Moore’s departure, and then left the room to advise Correction Officer Edwards of what had just occurred and that there was potential for trouble between inmates Baez and Moore. Officer Edwards was on duty at the correction officers’ station at the end of the hallway leading from the day room to the dorm area. While discussing this matter with Officer Edwards, Officer Bankich testified that inmate Moore, alone, ran past them back into the day room. Officer Bankich testified that he and Officer Edwards immediately pursued inmate Moore, but when they arrived at the day room the fight had already broken out, with numerous inmates involved. Officer Bankich testified that he personally observed claimant fighting with another inmate, and that claimant was throwing chairs.

Officer Bankich testified that despite their orders to stop, the fight escalated to such an extent that he pulled his personal security pin to request assistance. Eventually, order was restored.

The testimony of Correction Officer Edwards substantially corroborated the testimony of Officer Bankich.

As indicated previously, there is some discrepancy in the testimony of each of the witnesses as to the length of time that Officer Bankich had left the day room unattended while he went to speak with Officer Edwards. Additionally, Officer Bankich and Officer Edwards both testified that inmate Moore was alone when he ran past them back into the day room, while claimant’s witnesses testified that inmate Moore was accompanied by at least two other inmates.

Notwithstanding this divergent testimony, however, the testimony is undisputed that inmates Baez and Moore had exchanged words in the day room before the fight occurred, and that Officer Bankich had approached those two inmates and issued them a warning. Testimony further establishes, without dispute, that inmate Moore then left the day room (whether or not he was ordered to do so by Officer Bankich), and that Officer Bankich, at some point in time shortly thereafter, also left the day room. Furthermore, there is no dispute whatsoever that the fight broke out while Officer Bankich was not present in the day room.

Based on these facts, claimant alleges that the State was negligent in failing to adequately supervise those inmates in the day room, specifically contending that Officer Bankich was negligent in leaving the day room unattended.

It is well settled that the State, which has “assumed physical custody of inmates, who cannot protect and defend themselves in the same way as those at liberty can,” owes a duty of care to safeguard inmates in its penal institutions (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247, 252). This duty of care requires the State to provide inmates with reasonable protection against foreseeable risks of attack by other inmates (Flaherty v State of New York, 296 NY 342; Blake v State of New York, 259 AD2d 878). The State, however, is not an insurer of inmate safety, and the fact that an assault occurred does not, in and of itself, give rise to an inference of negligence (Sebastiano v State of New York, 112 AD2d 562; Padgett v State of New York, 163 AD2d 914, lv denied 76 NY2d 711). Rather, “the scope of the State’s duty to protect inmates is limited to risks of harm that are reasonably foreseeable” (Sanchez v State of New York, supra at 253). In Sanchez, the Court of Appeals held that foreseeable risks in inmate-on-inmate assault cases included circumstances which should reasonably be perceived, as well as those that were actually known, to the State.

In the instant case, all of the testimony established that Officer Bankich was not in the day room at the time that this brawl commenced. Officer Bankich even testified himself that he had left the room to speak with Correction Officer Edwards at his desk, and that the fight had begun by the time that he returned to the day room. However, the fact that a correction officer is not present at the precise time and place when an assault occurs does not, in and of itself, give rise to an inference of negligence (Colon v State of New York, 209 AD2d 842). Therefore, the issue for resolution in this claim is whether Officer Bankich was negligent in leaving his post, under circumstances of which he was, or should have been, aware.

Based upon the testimony at trial, there is no dispute that inmates Baez and Moore had been feuding throughout the day before this fight erupted. According to claimant’s testimony, and that of his fellow inmates who testified at trial, the ongoing dispute between inmates Baez and Moore was common knowledge. However, although claimant testified that he spoke with both inmates Baez and Moore during the day and counseled them against any fighting, he admittedly did not speak to any correction officers regarding this situation. Similarly, inmates Garrestequi and Medina also testified that even though they were aware of the potential for violence between inmates Baez and Moore, they also did not report this to correction officers. In short, there is no evidence or testimony whatsoever to establish that any correction officers, including Correction Officer Bankich, were aware of the simmering dispute between inmates Baez and Moore prior to the time when Officer Bankich spoke to these two inmates in the day room as they were exchanging words.

Significantly, there is also no dispute that when Officer Bankich noticed inmates Baez and Moore exchanging words in the day room, he approached the two inmates and, according to his testimony, asked the inmates if there was any problem, to which they responded negatively. Furthermore, there is no dispute that immediately following this exchange, inmate Moore left the day room to return to his dormitory cube. This fact certainly corroborates Officer Bankich’s testimony that he instructed the two inmates to stay away from each other, and that he directed inmate Moore to leave the day room and return to his cell.

Since there was no testimony or evidence to indicate that Officer Bankich had any knowledge that inmates Baez and Moore had been feuding throughout the day, or that inmates in the day room were preparing for a brawl, the Court finds that Officer Bankich took appropriate and reasonable action to resolve a potentially hostile confrontation. In particular, after inmate Moore left the day room, there was no reason for Officer Bankich to believe that the potential for violence among those inmates who remained in the day room still existed.

Furthermore, the Court notes that even though claimant and his two inmate witnesses all testified as to the potential for violence between inmates Baez and Moore, none of those inmates provided any testimony whatsoever that a large scale brawl or fight was brewing. Without some sort of notice, either actual or constructive, there is simply no proof that the correction officers knew, or should have known, of the potential for the brawl which eventually occurred. Without any such notice, the Court therefore finds that Officer Bankich was not negligent when he left the day room, after inmate Moore had in fact left the room, to discuss the situation with Officer Edwards. Furthermore, there was no reason for Officer Bankich to expect that inmate Moore would defy his direct order and rush back to the day room to engage in, or even precipitate, the brawl which occurred.

Based on the evidence presented at trial, the Court finds that claimant has failed to establish that the defendant had notice, either actual or constructive, of the potential brawl in which claimant was injured. Since this Court has found no basis on which the correction officers, including Correction Officer Bankich, could reasonably have anticipated such a brawl occurring, and since inmate Valasquez admittedly suffered his injuries in this brawl, the Court finds that claimant has failed to establish that the State breached its duty to provide reasonable protection to claimant in this matter.

This claim, therefore, must be dismissed.

LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.


March 27, 2008
Syracuse, New York

HON. NICHOLAS V. MIDEY JR.
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1]. Unless otherwise indicated, all references and quotations are taken from the Court’s trial notes.