New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

BENJAMIN v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2009-040-079, Claim No. 107065


Synopsis


Inmate assaulted by fellow inmate. After trial, Court finds no State liability. Dismissed.

Case Information

UID:
2009-040-079
Claimant(s):
KALVIN BENJAMIN
Claimant short name:
BENJAMIN
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
107065
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
CHRISTOPHER J. McCARTHY
Claimant’s attorney:
Kalvin Benjamin, Pro Se
Defendant’s attorney:
ANDREW M. CUOMO
Attorney General of the State of New YorkBy: Michael C. Rizzo, Esq., AAG
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
October 27, 2009
City:
Albany
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision

Claimant, Kalvin Benjamin, has failed to establish by a preponderance of the credible evidence that the State of New York was negligent in connection with injuries he sustained in an inmate-on-inmate assault while he was incarcerated at Bare Hill Correctional Facility in Malone, New York (“Bare Hill”). The trial of the Claim was held by video conference on September 3, 2009, with the parties at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, and the Judge at the Court of Claims in Saratoga Springs, New York. There were two witnesses: the Claimant and Correction Officer (“C.O.”) Rodney Silver.


Claimant testified that, on January 13, 2001, he was incarcerated at Bare Hill and that, at approximately 9:00 p.m., he came back to his dorm from the gymnasium. He stated that he was in the bathroom when Inmate Chappelle came into the bathroom and said he was in a fight with Inmate Johnson. At that point, Mr. Johnson entered the bathroom and slashed Claimant on the face with a razor. He stated that Mr. Johnson ran out of the bathroom into the dorm area and Claimant chased after him, as did Mr. Chappelle.

Claimant said that C.O. Silver yelled at the inmates and ordered them to stop. C.O. Silver then called the Response Team and waited for their arrival. Claimant asserts that C.O. Silver was negligent in that he did not provide Claimant any medical assistance until after the Response Team arrived and the inmates had stopped fighting.

Claimant testified on cross-examination that, prior to this incident: he considered Mr. Johnson a friend; Mr. Johnson had never threatened him before; and he had never had any problems with Mr. Johnson. He stated he was surprised that he was attacked by Mr. Johnson. Claimant agreed that the assault happened very quickly.

The State called C.O. Silver as a witness. He testified that he has been employed by the New York State Department of Correctional Services (“DOCS”) for ten-and-one-half years and, in 2001, he was employed at Bare Hill. He stated that, on January 13, 2001, he was the dorm officer in the C-2 dorm at Bare Hill on the 3:00 to 11:00 p.m. shift, and that he became aware of a problem when he was sitting at his desk and heard a banging noise in the bathroom. As he turned around to see what was going on, he saw three inmates, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Chappelle and Claimant, running into the dorm area. He said that Mr. Johnson was running, that Mr. Chappelle was chasing him while swinging a chair at him, and Claimant was behind Mr. Chappelle. C.O. Silver noticed that Claimant was bleeding. The witness stated that he ordered the inmates to stop what they were doing, but they did not heed his direct orders, so he called for the Response Team. He stated that the Response Team arrived within a minute or two, order was restored, and medical attention was rendered to Claimant.

“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]; see Flaherty v State of New York, 296 NY 342, 346 [1947]; Di Donato v State of New York, 25 AD3d 944 [3d Dept 2006]). As in any other negligence action, “the scope of the duty owed by the defendant is defined by the risk of harm reasonably to be perceived” (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247, supra at 252; see Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233, 241 [1976]; Smith v County of Albany, 12 AD3d 912, 913 [3d Dept 2004]). Even though the “precise manner in which the harm occurred” may not have been foreseeable, liability attaches if it was “within the class of reasonably foreseeable hazards” to which the duty applies (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247, supra at 252; Rodriguez v City of New York, 38 AD3d 349, 352 [1st Dept 2007]). Moreover, it applies to those risks that were foreseeable, “not simply by actual notice but by actual or constructive notice – by what the ‘State knew or had reason to know’ ” (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247, supra at 255, quoting dissenting op at 260 [emphasis in original]). In the instant Claim, it encompasses those risks that Defendant reasonably should have foreseen in the context of its operation of a “prison and having custody of inmates forcibly surrounded by felons – many of them with a proven capacity for violence” (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247, supra at 256).

At the same time, Defendant’s duty to prisoners does not “mandate unremitting surveillance in all circumstances, and does not render the State an insurer of inmate safety. When persons with dangerous criminal propensities are held in close quarters, inevitably there will be some risk of unpreventable assault, a risk the State cannot possibly eradicate. The mere occurrence of an inmate assault, without credible evidence that the assault was reasonably foreseeable, cannot establish the negligence of the State” (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247, supra at 256; Elnandes v State of New York, 11AD3d 828 [3d Dept 2004]).
The State has been found negligent in inmate-on-inmate assault claims where Claimant was able to establish that the attack was foreseeable because: (1) Defendant knew, or should have known, that the claimant was at risk of assault, yet failed to provide reasonable protection; (2) Defendant knew, or should have known, that the assailant was prone to perpetrate an attack, yet failed to take proper precautionary measures; or (3) Defendant failed to intervene or act when it knew, or should have known, that surrounding conditions were likely to engender or facilitate an attack (Smart v State of New York, Ct Cl, Claim No. 98024, December 21, 2007, Mignano, J. [UID No. 2007-029-053]; Douglas v State of New York, Ct Cl, Claim No. 108585, May 17, 2007, Sise, P.J. [UID No. 2007-028-012]; Shearin v State of New York, Ct Cl, Claim No. 108798, May 8, 2007, Sise, P.J. [UID No. 2007-028-011]).
The Court has considered all the evidence, including a review of the exhibits and listening to the witnesses testify and observing their demeanor as they did so. The witnesses provided generally sincere and forthright testimony. Nevertheless, the Court finds that Claimant did not meet his burden of proof and failed to establish by a preponderance of the credible evidence that Defendant was negligent in connection with the attack perpetrated upon him.
Claimant did not establish that Defendant knew, or should have known, that he was at risk of assault and failed to provide reasonable protection. Mr. Benjamin testified that, prior to the attack, he considered Mr. Johnson a friend and that Mr. Johnson previously had never threatened him.
Under the circumstances of this Claim, the Court concludes that Claimant failed to establish by a preponderance of the credible evidence that Defendant knew, or should have known, that Mr. Benjamin was at a greater risk of assault than any other inmate in the inherently volatile environment of a correctional facility.
Moreover, the Court determines that the record is insufficient to establish that Defendant knew, or should have been expected to know, that Mr. Johnson was prone to perpetrate his attack upon Mr. Benjamin, or that there was an increased likelihood that an assault could occur. Thus, the State was not under a heightened duty to take special precautions.
Claimant asserted, in opposition to Defendant’s motion to dismiss the Claim, that the State was negligent for a lack of security in failing to prevent Mr. Johnson from possessing the razor he used to attack Claimant. The State objected to such statement on the grounds Claimant offered no testimony on this issue during his case. The Court finds that no proof was offered to demonstrate that Defendant was careless in allowing the razor to be in the facility. “The history of assaults with instruments in State correctional institutions demonstrates that inmates can be especially ingenious in crafting and concealing weapons that diligent searches by correctional facility personnel do not uncover” (Capellanmena v State of New York, Ct Cl, Claim No. 93277, filed September 30, 1998, Bell, J.).
The Court also finds that Claimant failed to establish that C.O. Silver was negligent in allegedly failing to render aid to Claimant until the Response Team arrived. There was no evidence presented to establish that this one to two minute delay in providing Claimant medical attention in any way exacerbated the injuries Claimant already had received in the assault.
Claimant has failed to establish his Claim by a preponderance of the credible evidence.
All motions are denied as moot. All objections upon which the Court reserved determination during trial, and not otherwise addressed herein, are now overruled.
The Chief Clerk is directed to enter judgment dismissing the Claim.
October 27, 2009
Albany, New York
HON. CHRISTOPHER J. MCCARTHY
Judge of the Court of Claims