On October 11, 2004, while housed at Clinton Correctional Facility (Clinton),
Anthony Lawton (claimant) was involved in a physical altercation with a fellow
inmate, Smith, which resulted in claimant sustaining a number of injuries,
including abrasions and lacerations to his ear and a bite mark to his chest.
Claimant attributes his injuries to the failure of defendant to adequately
supervise the inmates and to adequately provide for his safety.
According to claimant, on the morning of October 11, 2004, believing someone
had stolen cheese from him, inmate Smith began searching other inmates’
“cubes.” Claimant described the area in which Smith and he lived, a
unit they had shared for six months, as an open area, like a “dorm.”
Finding Smith searching his cube, without claimant’s permission, claimant
confronted Smith and they had a verbal argument. Correction Officer Sorrell,
who was in the immediate vicinity, told the men to “knock this shit
off,” and the parties went their separate ways.
Approximately seventy-five minutes later, while he was washing a plate in a
bathroom/shower area, claimant alleges inmate Smith attacked claimant from
behind, swinging a “net” full of cans. Smith “jabbed”
at claimant as their scuffle moved from the bathroom/shower area to an open
hallway, where the two, now on the floor fighting, were separated by Correction
Officer Sorrell, who bear-hugged Smith while ordering claimant to remain on the
floor, which he did.
Subsequent to the events of October 11, 2004, defendant, believing claimant had
been the aggressor in the physical altercation between he and Smith, leveled
disciplinary charges against claimant, to which he pled guilty.
There is a marked dispute between claimant and defendant as to who initiated
the physical confrontation between claimant and Smith, who possessed a recovered
“shank,” and whether Smith wielded the net filled with cans to
attack claimant or to defend himself from claimant’s attack. Based upon
observing claimant’s testimony and his demeanor as he gave it and further
based upon a review of the admitted exhibits, including photographs of the
injuries sustained by each combatant, the Court concludes it was claimant who
initiated the physical confrontation with Smith. Credibility issues aside,
claimant has failed to establish that defendant should have foreseen a physical
confrontation between he and Smith.
The obligation of the defendant to provide care and custody of those who are
incarcerated has been clearly set forth in New York law:
“Having assumed physical custody of inmates, who cannot protect and
defend themselves in the same way as those at liberty can, the State owes a duty
of care to safeguard inmates, even from attacks by fellow inmates”
(Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247, 252 ). “This duty,
however, is limited to providing reasonable care to protect inmates from risks
of harm that defendant knew or should have known were foreseeable” (Di
Donato v State of New York, 25 AD3d 944 [3d Dept 2006]). “The State .
. . is not an insurer of inmate safety, and negligence cannot be inferred solely
from the happening of an incident” (Colon v State of New York, 209
AD2d 842, 843 [3d Dept 1994]).
In determining if the State provided reasonable care to protect an inmate from
assault the court may consider whether the claimant had previous known
encounters with his assailant or had listed his assailant on an “enemies
list with the institution” (Elnandes v State of New York, 11 AD3d
828, 829 [3d Dept 2004]). The court may also consider whether the assailant was
“a known dangerous prisoner” (Auger v State of New York, 263
AD2d 929, 930 [3d Dept 1999]; see Wilson v State of New York, 36 AD2d 559
[3d Dept 1971]). Further, the court may consider whether “claimant was a
known assault risk” (Stanley v State of New York, 239 AD2d 700, 701
[3d Dept 1997]).
The State’s potential liability for negligent supervision with respect to
an inmate-on-inmate assault is not limited, however, to situations in which
actual notice of a particular claimant's vulnerability or a particular
assailant's violent propensities can be shown. The State is also charged with
the duty of protecting an inmate from reasonably foreseeable risks of harm based
upon “what the State reasonably should have known--for example, from its
knowledge of risks to a class of inmates based on the institution's expertise or
prior experience, or from its own policies and practices designed to address
such risks” (Sanchez, 99 NY2d at 254).
Certain proof was uncontroverted. Claimant and inmate Smith had shared the
same open area housing unit without incident for six months. Smith was not on
any “enemies” list of claimant. In fact, claimant testified he had
considered Smith a friend of claimant’s uncle. Claimant had made no
request for protective custody or for any protection from or to be separated
from Smith prior to the physical confrontation.
For all of the reasons set forth immediately above, there was no cause
for defendant to reasonably foresee that Smith posed a threat to claimant. It
would be unreasonable to expect that an argument between inmates, not an
uncommon prison occurrence, and one that immediately ceased without incident
upon a correction officer’s order, at that, should have forewarned
defendant that Smith would assault claimant, assuming, for argument’s
sake, it was Smith who attacked claimant.
Correction Officer Sorrell testified he first became alerted to the physical
confrontation when he heard a commotion coming from the bathroom/shower area, in
a room about 30 feet down the open area from his post. Looking down the unit,
he saw Smith and claimant spill out of the bathroom/shower area and begin
fighting on the floor. Immediately responding, he separated the two by
physically restraining Smith, who, upon Sorrell’s arrival, was on top of
the tangled two on the floor. Correction Officer Sorrell also testified
that he ordered the two apart during the verbal argument earlier that
morning, and that they parted upon his order, without incident.
Correction Officer Sorrell, properly at his post, could not see into the
bathroom/shower area (to address any suggestion he should have seen and possibly
prevented the developing confrontation) and immediately and properly responded
to it upon first hearing, and then seeing it.
For all of the foregoing reasons, the claim is dismissed.
All motions not previously decided are hereby denied.
Let judgment be entered accordingly.