Assaulted Inmate's Claim vs. State Should Go to Trial
Associated Press - November 22, 2002

An inmate's claim that lax prison security allowed another prisoner to assault and severely injure him should go to trial, New York's highest court said Thursday. 

The Court of Appeals' 5-2 ruling had the dissenting judges warning that the court was expanding the state's liability for personal injuries caused by the "criminal acts of inmates." Advocates for prisoners, meanwhile, praised the decision. 

The case arose from a Dec. 14, 1995, assault on inmate Francisco Sanchez by another prisoner at the maximum-security Elmira Correctional Facility. Sanchez was punched and slashed across the face, creating a wound that took 40 stitches to close. 

At the time of the assault, Sanchez was standing in a hallway with other inmates preparing to return to their housing units after evening classes. About 100 other inmates were in the area guarded by one corrections officer, who was in an equipment room about 60 feet away from where Sanchez was attacked. 

The inmate sued the state, contending that it failed to provide "active supervision" of inmates at a time when large groups of prisoners were moving from one part of the prison to another. Such "go back" time is notorious in prisons for inmate assaults and other disruptions, Sanchez argued. The state Court of Claims dismissed Sanchez's suit, ruling that because the attack was "unforeseeable," the state couldn't be held liable for it. The midlevel Appellate Division of state Supreme Court agreed. 

But five Court of Appeals judges Tuesday, led by Chief Judge Judith Kaye, said there are valid questions in Sanchez's claim - such as his being out of sight of the lone officer on the corridor during "go back" time - that should be heard in the Court of Claims. 

While the state cannot guarantee the safety of inmates in prisons, it is obligated to protect them from harm that is "reasonably foreseeable," according to Kaye. 

"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," Kaye wrote for the majority. 

Dissenting Judges Richard Wesley and Victoria Graffeo countered that Sanchez has offered no proof "from which a reasonable jury could infer the state knew or should have known that there was an unreasonable risk of violence." 

Graffeo warned that the court was expanding the opportunities for inmates to sue the state for assaults they suffered behind bars at the hands of other prisoners. In her decision, Kaye denied that the court was opening "the floodgates to litigation." 

Mary Lynne Werlwas, staff attorney for the Prisoners' Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society, said the ruling didn't break any new ground, but it reaffirmed that the state owes a reasonable duty of care to inmates. Lower court rulings had eroded the extent of that duty, Werlwas said. "Some lower courts had been requiring prisoners who had been put in a dangerous situation to make much more stringent showings that the prison knew or should have known about the danger they faced," she said. "This was far beyond anything that was required on the outside." 
The state Department of Correctional Services had no immediate comment.