New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

MORALES v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2008-030-004, Claim No. 111257


Synopsis


After trial, State not liable for inmate-on-inmate assault in recreation area at Green Haven. Claimant did not sustain burden of establishing that the State had actual notice of the harm that befell him, or that constructive notice should reasonably be implied in the surrounding circumstances. No showing that claimant was known to be at risk generally, because of his membership in a particular class of inmates, or that his attacker was known for violent propensities. There was no prior notice of any particular antagonism between claimant and his assailant, or any other evidence of motive. There was no record made to establish that the use of one correction officer to supervise the inmates in the gymnasium area is against penological standards of care, and the only testimony extant was to the effect that this was the policy. There was no showing that there had been problems in this recreational area in the past, and that therefore more stringent supervision might be called for.

Case Information

UID:
2008-030-004
Claimant(s):
JOSE MORALES
Claimant short name:
MORALES
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
111257
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
THOMAS H. SCUCCIMARRA
Claimant’s attorney:
JOSE MORALES, PRO SE
Defendant’s attorney:
HON. ANDREW M. CUOMO, NEW YORK STATE ATTORNEY GENERAL
BY: BARRY KAUFMAN, ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
February 27, 2008
City:
White Plains
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Decision

Jose Morales alleges in his claim that defendant’s agents at Green Haven Correctional Facility failed to protect him from an assault by a fellow inmate in the basketball court area on or about May 12, 2005. Trial of the matter was held on February 8, 2008.

Claimant testified that on May 12, 2005 at approximately 1:00 p.m. he was “at . . . [his] program”[1] in the gym, standing in the basketball area, when he was stabbed in the back of the head and upper back by an unknown assailant. After being stabbed, he “retreated” to the area where the officer in charge was located, through the gym door. He said that as he turned, he was again stabbed in the head and other areas of his torso, and claimed that while this was taking place, the officer in charge just “stood there.”

Claimant said he later “learned” that the assailant “was not supposed to be in the gym area.” He said that one of the duties of officers assigned to the gym area is to check each inmate entering the area against a master call-out sheet. Claimant asserted that the officers negligently failed to do so causing him to sustain serious injuries, including eleven puncture wounds and lacerations on his head, left hand, left arm, left temple, above the right eye, his upper back, right thigh, and right shoulder. He bruised his left elbow, suffered scrapes on the top of his head and left side of his ribs. He said he received several stitches for his head and thigh wounds.

No other witnesses testified and no other evidence was submitted on claimant’s direct case.

Correction Officer Dana Johnson testified for the State of New York. Officer Johnson was working at Green Haven on May 12, 2005, and recalled an incident occurring in the gym between claimant and another inmate named Jackson. Officer Johnson was the assigned gym officer that day. No others were assigned that day, nor is it the policy or practice at the facility to assign more than one officer at the gym. He said he first became aware of something happening when he was in the main office of the gym, and two inmates came from the main gym into the main foyer at approximately 1:10 p.m. They had their arms wrapped around each other, and inmate Jackson was “making a stabbing or punching motion toward inmate Morales, and inmate Morales was trying to get away from Jackson.” The officer said he immediately “pulled [his] pin to get the response team, got on the radio, called the arsenal to get immediate emergency response to the gymnasium area . . . [He] went over and unlocked the doors to the gym so that the response team would have access; and then waited for the response team to come in to help quell the situation.” Simultaneously, numerous direct orders were given to the inmates to “break it up,” for example, to “take their hands out, and lay down on the ground. They did not comply.”

Officer Johnson explained that the “policy and procedure when there is a violent attack between inmates and you are the only correction officer on the scene and there is a group of inmates - here between 25 and 35 inmates - you are instructed to wait for a response team especially if weapons are involved. You are not supposed to jump in.” He said that the response team was there in “about a minute.”

He recalled inmate Jackson coming into the gym initially. The inmate had the appropriate program card indicating he was supposed to take a wellness class that was in the far side of the gym. This was a different program than the one Mr. Morales was in. Inmate Jackson would not be on the list for call-outs for the gym. There was no call-out sheet for those attending a wellness program, nor was there a master list as alleged by claimant to compare the program card against.

There was no cross-examination of the witness. No other witnesses testified and no other evidence was submitted.

While the State must provide inmates with reasonable protection against foreseeable risks of attack by other inmates [Blake v State of New York, 259 AD2d 878 (3d Dept 1999); Sebastiano v State of New York, 112 AD2d 562 (3d Dept 1985)], the State is not the insurer of the safety of inmates, and the fact that an assault occurs does not - on its own - give rise to an inference of negligence. Sebastiano v State of New York, supra. In order to establish liability on the State’s part, an inmate claimant must allege and prove that the State knew or should have known that there was a risk of harm to the Claimant that was reasonably foreseeable and inadequately addressed. Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247, 253 (2002); see also Sanchez v State of New York, 36 AD3d 1065 (3d Dept 2007), lv denied 8 NY3d 815 (2007); Di Donato v State of New York, 25 AD3d 944 (3d Dept 2006). The Court must look at all the surrounding circumstances to see if the actions taken by the State were reasonable under the circumstances.

In this case, there has been no showing that the claimant was known to be at risk generally, because of his membership in a particular class of inmates, or that his attacker was known for violent propensities. There was no prior notice of any particular antagonism between claimant and his assailant, or any other evidence of motive. There was no record made to establish that the use of one correction officer to supervise the inmates in the gymnasium area is against penological standards of care, and the only testimony extant was to the effect that this was the policy. There was no showing that there had been problems in this recreational area in the past, and that, therefore more stringent supervision might be called for.

Moreover, after observing the demeanor of the claimant as he testified, and that of the correction officer, the Court does not credit the claimant’s testimony to the effect that the officer “just stood there” in light of the obvious security constraints in the face of an ongoing physical assault, and the reasonable reactions to the situation by Officer Johnson.

No incident reports or other contemporaneous accounts were presented to further substantiate the facts as presented by claimant, nor were any medical records submitted in evidence to establish the extent or nature of claimant’s injuries, or how such injuries might have occurred.

More generally, the inherent risk of violent activity in a correctional facility housing dangerous individuals does not mandate imposition of liability for inmate-on-inmate assaults that are not reasonably foreseeable. Claimant has simply not sustained his burden of establishing that the State had actual notice of the harm that befell him, or that constructive notice should reasonably be implied in the surrounding circumstances, by a preponderance of the credible evidence. Claimant has not established a general breach of the duty of care to safeguard inmates in defendant’s custody, nor has he established that some special duty was owed to him that was breached.

Although it was his burden to establish his claim by a preponderance of the credible evidence, claimant has failed to establish that the State negligently failed to protect him from an assault by a fellow inmate. Defendant’s motion to dismiss, upon which decision was reserved at trial, is hereby granted, and claim number 111257 is in all respects dismissed.

Let judgment be entered accordingly.

February 27, 2008
White Plains, New York

HON. THOMAS H. SCUCCIMARRA
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1]. All quotations are to trial notes or audiorecordings unless otherwise indicated.