New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

LAWTON v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2008-041-512, Claim No. 110135


Claim based on inmate-on-inmate assault is dismissed where proof failed to show that defendant should have reasonably foreseen assault.

Case Information

1 1.The caption is amended to reflect the only proper defendant.
Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :
The caption is amended to reflect the only proper defendant.
Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

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

Cross-motion number(s):

Claimant’s attorney:
Defendant’s attorney:
New York State Attorney General
By: Thomas R. Monjeau, Esq. Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
August 28, 2008

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


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 [2002]). “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.

August 28, 2008
Albany, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims