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$1.5 Million Awarded for Failure to Protect Rikers Jail Prisoner Who Was Attacked Repeatedly

by Kevin W. Bliss

On June 2, 2021, a federal jury in New York City ruled in favor of a prisoner at the city’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex, deciding the city and the jail’s warden were liable for injuries he suffered there in a 2009 gang attack and awarding him $1.5 million in damages.

The prisoner, Samuel Small, was first admitted to Rikers Island as a pretrial detainee on June 23, 2005. His access to greater areas of the jail made him a target for gangs to convince him to help smuggle contraband. At some point he refused a request to smuggle contraband made by the Bloods. The leader of the gang wrote several memos to other gang members placing a hit on Small. After he was attacked by a group of Bloods on June 27, 2005, he was moved to another section of the jail before he was later released.

Small was again arrested on April 6, 2006, and readmitted to Rikers Island. He was placed in the same section of the jail in which the earlier assault occurred even though he advised a guard of the danger that would place him in. The guard said he would inform his supervisor, but Small had to be held in that section for the time being. While there he was allegedly attacked again by two Blood members on October 14, 2006, who assaulted him and cut him with a razor, sending him to urgent care.

When returned to the jail, he was assigned to a dorm still in the vicinity of the previous attack. Consequently, Small was attacked a third time on October 15, 2006. Allegedly he could get no help from any of the guards and had to escape through the cellblock’s outer gate.

The last attack occurred on March 9, 2009. Small said the guards were inappropriately absent from their posts and congregating in the hallway outside the dorm. So they did not witness the beginning of the altercation, and they were not much help at the end of it.

Small then filed suit pro se in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, accusing the three guards present during the last attack of failing to protect him, also accusing Rikers Island Warden Emmanuel Baily of failing to train and supervise the guards adequately, as well as accusing the City of New York, using a Monell claim, of creating a policy or custom permitting guards to violate a prisoner’s rights.

The City filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing against the facts as submitted in Small’s suit. After hearing oral arguments on May 9, 2019, when evidence was submitted by both parties including information from previous lawsuits, news articles, memoranda and several documents from guards and administrators at Rikers Island, Judge Deborah Batts issued her ruling on May 23, 2019, holding there was insufficient evidence to bring claims against the three guards but allowing the claims against Warden Baily and the City to continue, agreeing there existed a dispute of general material facts that needed to be decided by the Court.

The case proceeded to reach an impasse that was resolved by a ruling on 16 motions in limine offered by both parties, which was issued by Judge Ronnie Abrams, who had then taken over for Batts, on March 29, 2021. Some of these motions were denied, and some were granted.

The Court took time to explain its ruling to exclude some of Plaintiff’s medical records, including some unrelated to the incident, which Defendants offered to prove his injuries “were not as bad as he says,” as well as others dismissed because, in so far as they were intended “to demonstrate a propensity to engage in fights, they constitute inadmissible character evidence” against Small. See: Small v. N.Y. City Dep’t of Corr., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59667 (S.D.N.Y.).

After a six-day trial, the jury returned its verdict in June 2021. On September 7, 2021, the City filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law and remittitur of the damage award. That motion is still pending as we go to press. See: Small v. N.Y. City Dep’t of Corr., USDC (S.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:09-cv-01912-RA-SDA. 

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Related legal case

Small v. N.Y. City Dep’t of Corr.