Was County Liable to Injured Prisoner?
Henry Concepcion-Ramos, an inmate, sued the County of Westchester alleging negligence for injuries purportedly sustained when he became embroiled in an altercation with another inmate at the Westchester County Jail.
The day prior to the assault, at approximately 10:00 p.m., Ramos was pushed and thrown to the floor by an inmate named Mercedes. At his deposition, Ramos testified that all the inmates within the dormitory area witnessed the altercation.
On the following day, Ramos testified that he reported the incident involving Mercedes to a corrections officer and requested to be moved to a different dormitory area. The corrections officer subsequently relayed the information provided by Ramos to the sergeant. At his deposition, Sergeant Gary Haspil testified that Ramos informed him of the incident that occurred the night before with Mercedes. Haspil further testified that the conversation occurred by the officer’s control panel which is located in the vicinity of the day room where they were both visible and where they could be heard by other inmates.
Shortly thereafter, the Sergeant went to find Mercedes to tell him to pack up because he was being moved to another dormitory area. At his deposition, Ramos testified that Haspil told Mercedes that he was being moved in front of all the other inmates. Ramos further testified that the group of inmates collectively asked Haspil why Mercedes was being moved and Haspil told the inmates that Ramos had filed a report on Mercedes. Ramos alleged that he was thereafter known as a “jailhouse rat” which prompted the subsequent assault.
Shortly after Mercedes was removed, Ramos was punched multiple times in the face by John Hicks, another inmate. Ramos testified that the assault by Hicks occurred when he was walking either to talk to another inmate or to the restroom. As soon as he passed Hicks, Hicks began punching him. Ramos later learned from someone that Hicks yelled “rat” right before the assault on him.
Following the completion of discovery, the County moved for an order granting summary judgment dismissing the complaint. Ramos opposed the motion.
A municipality owes a duty of care to inmates in correctional facilities to safeguard them from attacks by fellow inmates. A municipality is not an insurer of prisoner safety and negligence cannot be inferred merely because an incident occurred. But a municipality is nevertheless charged with a duty to provide reasonable care to protect inmates from risks of harm that are reasonably foreseeable.
Foreseeability includes what the municipality knew or should have known. Questions concerning what was foreseeable and what was normal may be the subject of varying inferences, as is the question of negligence itself. So those issues generally are for the fact finder to resolve.
In determining whether the municipality had reason to know about a danger, its knowledge of the particular inmates is relevant, but so are its knowledge of risks to a class of inmates, its expertise or prior experience, and its own policies and practices designed to address the risks. Accordingly, a municipality moving for summary judgment dismissing an inmate’s negligent supervision claim must meet a high threshold-and bears the burden of establishing that the assault of the plaintiff was not foreseeable as a matter of law.
Here, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Ramos, and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor, the Court found that the submissions raised a material issue fact as to whether the assault on Ramos by Hicks was reasonably foreseeable. The County focused on the facts that Ramos had never complained about Hicks prior to the assault; the County was unaware of the specific danger posed by Hicks to Ramos; and the assault occurred suddenly and unexpectedly. However, that was not entirely dispositive on the issue of whether the assault was reasonably foreseeable to the County.
At deposition, Haspil testified that he was aware that inmates characterized as “jail house rats” had been the subject of attacks and that he was concerned with Ramos’ well-being when Mercedes was in the process of moving out of the dorm-because Mercedes, who Haspil described as “liked” among the inmates, was telling the other inmates the reason he was being moved out of the dorm.
The County’s duty was not measured by whether the assault was foreseeable to Ramos, but by whether it was foreseeable to the County. The fact that the assault came unexpectedly to Ramos was not the measure of the duty of the County, as custodian, to safeguard and protect Ramos from harm.
The County’s motion to dismiss Ramos’ complaint was denied.