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New York Prisoner Informant Awarded $7.65 Million In Failure-To-Protect Suit

On May 3, 2004, a federal jury in Manhattan awarded $7.65 million to a New York prisoner who was nearly killed when another prisoner attacked him with a razor.

The plaintiff had alleged in his civil rights lawsuit that prison officials ignored requests to segregate him despite warnings that he had been targeted by a street gang for assisting prosecutors.

Paul Kerson, the plaintiff's attorney, asked that his client not be identified because prison officials had still not segregated him, though he had been moved to another prison.

The case began in 1996 when the plaintiff was at Rikers Island serving a 2-4 year sentence. While there, the plaintiff informed prison authorities that the leader of a street gang planned to commit a murder. Prosecutors in the case rewarded the plaintiff by recommending that his sentence be reduced to 64 days.

Two years later the plaintiff was again convictedthis time for attempted murderand sentenced to 20 years. Because of his prior cooperation with prosecutors, the sentencing judge and the plaintiff's defense lawyer, Joseph Miller, wrote letters warning the Department of Correctional Services that his life could be in danger. The plaintiff also notified prison officials of his need for protection.

But prison officials ignored the warnings. When the plaintiff arrived at Sing Sing he was placed in the general population. There he managed to buy his safetyfor a time. When he could no longer afford to pay for protection, another prisoner attacked him with a razor, slashing his face and back. According to Kerson, his client nearly bled to death.

The plaintiff sued Glenn Goord, the correctional services commissioner, and William Connolly, the deputy superintendent for security, in their individual capacities for ignoring requests to segregate him.

After a weeklong trial, the jury found that Goord and Connolly were negligent in protecting the plaintiff from harm and that they had conspired to violate his constitutional rights. The jury assessed punitive damages of $5 million against Goord and $2.5 million against Connolly, and compensatory damages of $100,000 against Goord and $50,000 against Connolly, for a total award of $7.65 million.

Even though they were sued in their individual capacities, the defendants will be indemnified by the state if the verdict is upheld on appeal.

One issue that must still be addressed, said Kerson, is the "Son of Sam" Law. Originally designed to prevent prisoners from profiting from their crimes, the law in its current incarnation allows victims or their families to recover monetary damages regardless of the accused's source of wealth. Kerson said he does not think the law will preclude his client from keeping his award because in this instance, he too "is the victim of a crime."

Fighting for prisoners who have been assaulted where a change in policy could have prevented the attacks has become a crusade for Kerson. While working as a Queens defense lawyer from 1982 until 1996, Kerson says he became angry at the level of violence in New York prisons. Since then, Kerson has filed 37 lawsuits on behalf of prisoners who have suffered from preventable assaults. Most of those cases, notes Kerson, were dismissed because the victims had not met exhaustion requirements. In this case, however, the plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies through the prison grievance process, allowing the lawsuit to proceed.

Kerson, who has had three clients murdered in prison, has a message for prison officials who refuse to address the issue of prison violence: "the beatings, stabbings and rapes must stop now or we will teach every lawyer in this country how to do what we did and make it financially impossible to run an unconstitutional prison." See: "John Doe" v. Connolly; US DC SD NY, Case No. 99 Civ 1672

If the award in this case is any indication, prison officials may want to heed Kerson's warning.

Sources: The New York Times, New York Law Journal, Verdict Search

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Related legal case

John Doe v. Connolly