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Record of Previous Violence Gives Jail Officials Constructive Notice of Attack on Prisoner

On March 20, 2007, a New York state court of appeals held that a prisoner’s previous propensity for attacking other prisoners without provocation or warning and his housing in segregation served as sufficient constructive notice of the probability he would attack other prisoners.

Alex Rivera, a City of New York jail prisoner, was asleep in his bunk at the New York City Adolescent Reception and Detention Center in the Bronx when prisoner Curtis Armstrong, who was being brought back from the recreation yard by special escort guard Kevin Spencer, stopped in front of Rivera’s cell. Armstrong, who was assigned to another cell, insisted that Rivera’s cell was his. Spencer left him standing there and went toward the control room, apparently to ask about Armstrong’s cell assignment. A guard in the control room opened Rivera’s cell door. Armstrong entered the cell and fatally slashed the sleeping Rivera with a razor. The administrator of Rivera’s estate filed suit against the City in state court.

Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability. The trial court denied the motion, stating that there remained a fact question on whether the City had notice because no specific threat against Rivera had been alleged. Plaintiff appealed.

The Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, First Department, noted that Armstrong was well known to have a history of assaulting other prisoners without provocation or warning. He had even previously assaulted Spencer. Furthermore, Armstrong was housed in a single-man cell in a special section of the jail and subjected to a special escort, magnetometer check and strip search before he was returned to his cell from recreation because of his know proclivity for unprovoked violence. The control room guard even referred to Armstrong as “the most dangerous inmate in the detention center.”

Thus, the City had constructive notice of the danger that Armstrong would attack another prisoner.

Contrary to the trial court’s ruling, the precise manner in which the attack would take place or the precise victim need not be foreseeable. “Liability attaches when the harm is within the class of reasonably foreseeable hazards, in this case inmate-on-inmate attacks, that the duty exists to prevent.” Because the City failed to present any evidence negating its actual or constructive notice of the foreseeability of the attack, the order denying the motion for summary judgment was reversed. Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment was granted and the case returned to the trial court for determination of damages. Plaintiff was represented by David M. Goldberg of Amenia. See: Rivera v. City of New York, 834 N.Y.S.2d 10, 38 A.D.3d 349 (2007).

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Related legal case

Rivera v. City of New York