New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
GANTT v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2010-030-009, Claim No. 106877

Synopsis

After unified trial, claimant failed to establish State liability for assault by allegedly mentally unstable cell mate allegedly placed in SHU double-bunk setting without adequate screening. Among other deficits, no showing of what standards for screening there are to see whether the facility did not follow its own regulations in making the placements.

Case information

UID: 2010-030-009
Claimant(s): MARK GANTT
Claimant short name: GANTT
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) : The caption has been amended to reflect the only proper defendant.
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 106877
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: THOMAS H. SCUCCIMARRA
Claimant's attorney: MARK GANTT, PRO SE
Defendant's attorney: HON. ANDREW M. CUOMO, NEW YORK STATE ATTORNEY GENERAL
BY: J. GARDNER RYAN, ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: May 10, 2010
City: White Plains
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

Mark Gantt alleges in his claim that defendant's agents at Fishkill Correctional Facility [Fishkill] failed to protect him from an assault by his mentally unstable cellmate on October 19, 2002. Trial of the matter was held on March 26, 2010.

Mr. Gantt testified that he was transferred from Franklin Correctional Facility to Fishkill to the special housing unit [SHU] "on or about October 19, 2002."(2) He said they arrived at night and were screened quickly, and then placed in "SHU 200" which he explained is a "double-bunk set up in SHU."

The inmate placed with claimant was "a little shaky", he "was hearing voices" and had "assaulted someone else in the mess hall" recently. Claimant observed him periodically "going to the door and shouting out that people were talking about him" and the like. Claimant said he "let it go for a while", not wanting to be " a snitch."

One day, after they had reached another level of privilege where they were allowed headphones and an adapter to utilize to access the facility radio and television broadcasts, Mr. Gantt was using the headphones and reading a book when his cellmate came over, pulled out the headphones, and declared "you're making fart noises." When claimant looked up with a "huh?" expression, his cellmate "punched [him] in the mouth three times and in the nose."

A couple of days later when claimant "came out to go to the parole board" he said something to the sergeant, who then asked him why he had not said anything earlier. Claimant said it was his first opportunity to see somebody in authority, since most of the time they are simply passing trays through. He said he was written a ticket for failing to report his own assault.

He was released in 2004, and reentered the system in 2008.

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, the State is not the insurer of the safety of inmates, and the fact that an assault occurs does not give rise to the inference of negligence. Blake v State of New York, 259 AD2d 878 (3d Dept 1999); Sebastiano v State of New York, 112 AD2d 562 (3d Dept 1985). More broadly, 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). The Court must look to see if the actions taken by the State were reasonable under the circumstances.

While actual knowledge with respect to the foreseeability of a given assault

"...offers a bright-line test, that line redefines the traditional standard of reasonableness that has long been the touchstone of the law of negligence, and it cuts off consideration of other factors that have previously been found relevant to foreseeability. What the State actually knew plainly falls within the ambit of foreseeability . . . 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 . . . (citations omitted)" may also be established. Sanchez v State of New York, supra at 254.(3)

Upon review of all the evidence, including listening to Mr. Gantt testify and observing his demeanor as he did so, while claimant was certainly a credible witness the Court finds that claimant has failed to establish that defendant was negligent and that such alleged negligence was a proximate cause of his sudden assault by his cellmate and any injury.

The inherent risk of violent activity in a correctional facility housing dangerous individuals - including those with prior or current violent mental health issues - does not mandate imposition of liability for inmate-on-inmate assaults that are not reasonably foreseeable. In this case, there has been no showing that the claimant was known to be at risk either generally, or that his attacker was known or should have been known for his violent propensities. Claimant said that the screening for the initial placement was hasty and therefore inadequate, but did not make any showing of what standards for screening there are to see whether the facility did not follow its own regulations in making the placements. The testimony of the claimant alone simply does not establish the level and kind of screening done before inmates are placed together.

Thereafter, by not speaking out when he first observed that his cellmate was behaving erratically, he did not put the State in a position to address or assess any possible threat. There was no prior notice of any specific antagonism between claimant and his assailant.

Based on the foregoing, defendant's motion to dismiss for failure to establish a prima facie case of negligence is granted, and Claim Number 106877 is in all respects dismissed.

Let judgment be entered accordingly.

May 10, 2010

White Plains, New York

THOMAS H. SCUCCIMARRA

Judge of the Court of Claims


2. All quotations are to trial notes or audio recordings unless otherwise indicated.

3. It is noted that the majority opinion - addressing the concerns of the dissent - declares that " . . . we underscore that the State'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 majority confirms that in the case before it there was simply a triable issue, given " . . . uncontested evidence of State rules and regulations relevant to foreseeability; uncontested evidence of an elevated risk of inmate-on-inmate attack during congregate 'go-back' time; and uncontested evidence of both the regularity of the correction officer's inattentiveness at precisely that time and the officer's inability to see claimant at the location where he was required to stand."