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Inmate Assault - Negligence Theory Survives Summary Judgment

Inmate Assault

In Wassmann Jr. v. County of Ulster, 522709, NYLJ 1202774998380, at *1 (App. Div., 3rd, Decided November 23, 2016) the Appellate Division, Third Department reversed an Order granting Summary Judgment to Ulster County reinstating Plaintiff's negligence suit that stemmed out of Plaintiff's being assaulted by another inmate.

The inmate Plaintiff's theory of negligence is that the Defendants have a duty to protect the inmates that they house. Whether the harm that could result to other inmates is foreseeable is based on a number of factors. The standard of duty and care here seems to be created by statute, as the Court explains:

Correction Law §500-b (7) (a) states that the reviewing officer "shall exercise good judgment and discretion and shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that the assignment of persons to facility housing units" advances the safety and security of all inmates and that of the facility in general. The statute enumerates a number of factors to consider in that analysis, but an inmate's history of assaultive behavior or his or her prior prison disciplinary history are not among them (see Correction Law §500-b [7] [b]; cf. Arnold v. County of Nassau, 89 F Supp 2d 285, 299-300 [EDNY 2000], vacated on different grounds 252 F3d 599 [2d Cir 2001] [negligence per se where the custodian disregarded specific criteria set forth in Correction Law §500-b (7)]). The statute further lacks a specific requirement that the reviewing officer obtain all records pertaining to an inmate, instead directing a review of whatever "relevant and known" records are "accessible and available" (Correction Law §500-b [7] [c] [3]). The statute accordingly creates a "possibility of exceptions…significant enough to justify a case-by-case determination of negligence without the automatic imposition of negligence under the negligence per se doctrine," although a failure to obtain specific records could well constitute evidence of negligence in a given case (Dance v. Town of Southampton, 95 AD2d 442, 447 [1983]; see Schmidt v. Merchants Despatch Transp. Co., 270 NY 287, 305 [1936]).

Id. at P. 4 (external quotation marks omitted and internal citations preserved).

Inmate assault. Whether it be from stereotypes or television, people know that prison is an uncomfortable and dangerous place. The inmate Plaintiff here alleges that he was assaulted by another inmate and sustained injuries to which the county breached a duty of care. Suing under that theory of negligence (he also sued in federal court on another theory), Plaintiff alleges that the "defendants were negligent by not taking into account the assailant's violent conduct while previously imprisoned and placing him in 'close custody' at the jail." Id. at P. 2. The Plaintiff alleged that the other inmate had violent propensities and that the inmate who eventually assaulted Plaintiff had a "specific problem" with the Plaintiff. The Inmate Assault, therefore, was foreseeable and could have been prevented, Plaintiff alleges.

"Having assumed physical custody of inmates, who cannot protect and defend themselves in the same way as those at liberty can, the [s]tate [or its political subdivisions] owe[] a duty of care to safeguard inmates, even from attacks by fellow inmates" (Sanchez v. State of New York, 99 NY2d 247, 252 [2002] [citations omitted]; see Smith v. County of Albany, 12 AD3d 912, 913 [2004]). This duty of care does not render the custodial entity "an insurer of inmate safety[,] and negligence cannot be inferred merely because an incident occurred" (Vasquez v. State of New York, 68 AD3d 1275, 1276 [2009]; Sanchez v. State of New York, 99 NY2d at 253). The duty owed is instead "limited to providing reasonable care to protect inmates from risks of harm that are reasonably foreseeable, i.e., those that [the custodial entity or its agents] knew or should have known" (Vasquez v. State of New York, 68 AD3d at 1276; see Sanchez v. State of New York, 99 NY2d at 253; Smith v. County of Albany, 12 AD3d at 913).

The inmate Plaintiff here, after reversal, survives summary judgment. Plaintiff alleges material issues of that should have allowed for this matter to go to trial and the Court agrees. The Third Department states that the

reviewing official here, defendant Michael Coughlin, did not consider the assailant's prior prison disciplinary records, and that omission constituted a violation of the regulation that is "some evidence of negligence" (Bauer v. Female Academy of Sacred Heart, 97 NY2d at 453). Coughlin completed a classification worksheet reflecting that, even without factoring in the assailant's conduct while previously confined, the assailant should be placed in close custody due to his violent criminal history and the existence of a detainer warrant against him. Inasmuch as the assailant had "never been in [the jail] and [was not] a discipline problem," however, Coughlin disregarded the classification suggested by those "policies and practices designed to address" risks to the safety of others and placed the assailant in general population (Sanchez v. State of New York, 99 NY2d at 254; see Brown v. City of New York, 95 AD3d 1051, 1052 [2012]).

Plaintiffs' lawsuit occurred in tandem with a federal lawsuit. While this state case survives, the federal lawsuit was dismissed because Plaintiff could not show that the defendants acted with deliberate indifference.

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