New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

WIGGINS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2009-030-022, Claim No. 114528


State of New York liable for loss of personal property after cell fire, premised upon failure to secure same and properly inventory

Case Information

Claimant short name:
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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:
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
July 27, 2009
White Plains

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Carl Wiggins, an inmate proceeding pro se, alleges in his claim that defendant’s agents at Green Haven Correctional Facility negligently allowed a fire to be set in his cell, and later failed to secure his remaining property on or about August 5, 2007. Trial of the matter was held on June 12, 2009.

Claimant testified that he was at his work assignment in the mess hall at 8:00 p.m. on August 5, 2007 when he learned from a sergeant and a correction officer that his cell had been set on fire. They indicated that they did not know who had set the cell on fire, and asked him whether he had any enemies they should be aware of, and whether he wanted to be placed in protective custody. Thereafter, he was placed in involuntary protective custody. Once placed there, he “received what was left of [his] property about three hours later.”[1] He was never given an opportunity to review what was left in his cell. No I-64 inventory form accompanied the property he did receive.

Claimant filed a grievance [Exhibit 4], and also pursued a facility personal property claim remedy [Exhibit 1], in order to exhaust his administrative remedies as he understood them. Mr. Wiggins explained that when he arrived at the facility, he had seven bags of property - including sneakers, a fan, a radio, headphones - all of which was destroyed in the fire. The report of fire form prepared by correctional personnel indicates that it was caused by arson and originated on the bed in the cell. [Exhibit 5]. The monetary loss is noted as “undetermined at this time.” [Id.]. The writer also makes reference to what was lost as “confined to listed items, sheets, and mattress” but no list other than the foregoing is attached to the form. [Id.].

Mr. Wiggins understood that when his property was packed up in his cell after the fire, “inmates brought it down to the flats.” He said he did not know whether “they took stuff” from the bags. To his knowledge, no inventory was taken beforehand.

The inmate claim form he filed lists the property he claims was destroyed, and asks for a total of $673.48 (as supplemented in an additional sheet). [Exhibit 1]. The facility offered claimant $24.85 in total compensation for the loss. [Id.].

Claimant produced receipts “for almost all the property” [Exhibit 2] and permits for electronic gear. [Exhibit 3].

On cross-examination, claimant conceded that much of the property was two to three years old at the time of the loss, but explained that items such as sneakers he would wear only for visitors, using his State-issued boots on a daily basis. The food items had been recently received at the time of the fire.

No other witnesses testified and no other evidence was submitted.

To establish a prima facie case of negligence the following elements must exist: (1) that defendant owed the claimant a duty of care; (2) that defendant failed to exercise proper care in the performance of that duty; (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury; and (4) that such injury was foreseeable under the circumstances by a person of ordinary prudence. Here, there was little to no testimony given concerning the fire itself in terms of the level of destruction, what kind of action was taken to put it out and how promptly, and any prior notice of the danger. Cf. Miceli v State of New York, 179 Misc 2d 424 (Ct Cl 1998).

The evidence submitted confirms, however, that the fire was indeed started by arson, and that it was “under control” in “approx[imately] 3 minutes.” [Exhibit 5]. There is no indication or suspicion that claimant himself orchestrated the fire. Indeed, the Inmate Grievance Resolution Committee suggested that claimant file a property loss claim [see Exhibit 4], and the property loss claim Mr. Wiggins then filed was approved in principle. [Exhibit 1]. No reason is given for the offer of only a nominal figure in settlement for the claimed loss. [Id.].

Given the factual scenario, while the defendant’s agents are not chargeable with failing to perceive the risk that a fire would be set in claimant’s cell, they are chargeable with the subsequent failure to secure his property after the fire. There is no indication that an inventory was taken, and claimant’s uncontradicted testimony was that inmates transported whatever property was left, and that the property that was left is listed on his inmate property claim. [Exhibit 1].

With respect to value, claimant must satisfy the court of the fair market value of the items in question. Phillips v Catania, 155 AD2d 866 (4th Dept 1989); Schaffner v Pierce, 75 Misc 2d 21 (Nassau Co. Dist. Ct. 1973). Receipts are the best evidence of fair market value, although uncontradicted testimony concerning replacement value may also be acceptable.

In this case, claimant has established ownership of at least some of the property at the time of the fire, and that the property left his custody and control by virtue of the cell fire and his removal from the area without any review of the remaining property. A failure to inventory the property is chargeable to the State. Claimant presented as a credible witness, whose testimony was uncontroverted. Although he did not have receipts for all the property, with respect to some of the items he had local permits.

Based upon the evidence submitted, the Court finds that claimant has established the State’s liability for the loss of, and the fair market value for, two (2) pairs of sneakers (2004), three (3) pairs of boots (2005), one (1) West Bend fan (2005), one (1) Sony Walkman (2006), one (1) pair of Koss headphones (2005), one (1) hot pot (2005), one (1) adapter (2006), ten (10) oyster cans (July 2007), ten (10) tuna cans (July 2007), one (1) Acqua watch (2005), two (2) long sleeved Gildan t-shirts (2005), three (3) Jerzees 50/50 t-shirts (2003), two (2) long-sleeved Gildan t-shirts (2005), one (1) Big long sleeve t-shirt (2005), and one (1) three-pack of Big athletic t-shirts (2005). Most items were more than one (1) year old at the time of the loss, thus depreciation is fairly applied to arrive at fair market value as required. See Schaffner v Pierce, supra, at 24. The total loss supported by the record is $387.00, representing reasonable compensation based on age and reasonable value of the items noted above.

Accordingly, claimant is hereby awarded damages in the amount of $387.00 plus statutory interest [State Finance Law §16; Civil Practice Law and Rules §5004], which the Court finds presumptively reasonable, from the date of accrual of August 5, 2007 to the date of this Decision, and thereafter to the date of the entry of judgment pursuant to Civil Practice Law and Rules §§5001 and 5002.

It is ordered that to the extent claimant has paid a filing fee, it may be recovered pursuant to Court of Claims Act § 11-a(2).

Let judgment be entered accordingly.

July 27, 2009
White Plains, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1]. Quotations are to trial notes or audio recordings unless otherwise noted.