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Bacon v. United States

November 27, 2007

BRIAN BACON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David E. Peebles U.S. Magistrate Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Brian Bacon, a prison inmate entrusted at the relevant times to the custody of the United States Bureau of Prisons ("BOP"), has commenced this action against the United States pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b) and 2671 et seq., based upon an incident occurring in December of 2000 at the Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution ("FCI Ray Brook"). Stripped of its procedural and jurisdictional niceties, this is a simple negligence action. In his complaint, Bacon asserts that prison officials breached the duty of care owed to him during the course of escorting him back to his cell from a meeting with prison officials by allowing him to climb a set of stairs alone while handcuffed, and that as a result of their actions he fell, suffering a laceration to his head and resulting in lingering, disabling head and back conditions. As relief, plaintiff seeks recovery of damages for pain and suffering, quantified at $100,000 by him at trial.

Plaintiff's claims were tried to the court, beginning on September 17, 2007.*fn2 Based upon the evidence adduced at trial, I find that the plaintiff has failed to establish negligence on the part of BOP officials by a fair preponderance of the evidence, and therefore find in favor of the defendant in connection with his claims. The following constitutes the court's findings of fact and conclusions of law, based upon the evidence presented during the trial.

I. BACKGROUND

At the times relevant to his claims, plaintiff was a prison inmate entrusted to the custody of the BOP, and designated to FCI Ray Brook, located in Ray Brook, New York, and within the geographical boundaries of this district.*fn3 Plaintiff's incarceration stems from a 1995 conviction entered in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia for possession, with intent to distribute, cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), resulting in the imposition of a sentence which included, principally, a one hundred fifty month term of imprisonment.

On December 19, 2000, the date of the incident forming the basis for his claims in this action, Bacon was assigned for disciplinary reasons to a second floor, two-inmate cell within the prison's special housing unit ("SHU"). The SHU at FCI Ray Brook is comprised of a series of first and second floor cells, visible from a central hub area. Each cell includes a door with a small plexiglass window and an additional port, described as a "wick", which can be unlocked and opened for use in applying and removing hand restraints from inmates. While in SHU confinement, BOP inmates are typically confined to their cells twenty-three hours a day, and are afforded daily recreation during weekdays for a period of one hour.

The hallways adjacent to the first and second floor cells within the SHU are protected by wire mesh. A metal stairway leads from the first floor to the second tier of cells. At the top of that stairway is a square landing, measuring approximately four feet on each side, leading to a metal framed, wire meshed door which, when not used, remains closed and locked. The cell in which plaintiff was housed at the relevant times is approximately the second to the right of the door located at the top of the stairs, when viewed from the perspective of the central rotunda area looking upward toward the second level.

On the evening of December 19, 2000, plaintiff was taken from his cell and escorted downstairs to a room located on the first floor of the SHU for a meeting with Corrections Lieutenant Troy Carlson. The purpose of the meeting was to facilitate an investigation by Lieutenant Carlson into allegations that plaintiff and another SHU inmate, Carlos Lopez, were planning to smuggle controlled substances into the prison facility.*fn4 At the conclusion of that meeting Senior Officer Specialist Steven Robla was assigned to escort Bacon back to his cell.*fn5

At approximately 7:30 p.m. on that date, while accompanied by Officer Robla, plaintiff stumbled on the stairway leading to the second tier, striking his head on the metal door at the top of the stairway and suffering a laceration of approximately two inches in length over his right eye. At the time of the incident plaintiff was handcuffed behind his back, and was wearing shower slippers.

The versions given at trial of the events surrounding plaintiff's accident were sharply conflicting. Plaintiff, whose testimony was corroborated by that of fellow inmate Carlos Lopez, although with some variances, stated that at the time of the incident he was climbing the stairs between the first and second tiers, with his hands restrained behind his back, without accompaniment.*fn6 According to Bacon, while in the process of escorting him back to his cell Officer Robla was summoned momentarily by Lieutenant Carlson, causing him to release his hold on Bacon prior to reaching the bottom of the stairs. Bacon maintains that it was not until he climbed the stairs, unaccompanied, and in the process fell, that Officer Robla returned to assist him.

Officer Robla, by contrast, states that at all times, including when the incident occurred, he maintained a grip on the bicep area of plaintiff's left arm, near his elbow, and that when the fall occurred he retained that grasp, causing the plaintiff to swing around and strike his head on the door, thereafter gently falling to the landing at the top of the stairs. According to Robla, the incident was precipitated by the plaintiff who, while ascending the stairs, bent down to continue a conversation with inmate Lopez, whose cell was on the first tier, and to permit him to maintain eye contact with Lopez for as long as possible. Immediately prior to reaching the top step, Robla testified, Bacon resumed an upright position and, when Robla reached to swing open the range door, caught his shower shoe on the last step, falling forward and striking his forehead on the door.*fn7

Following the incident, Senior Officer Specialist Fred Mason, who at the time of the fall was returning another inmate to a cell located on the second tier of the SHU, came to Bacon's assistance, applying direct pressure to the wound utilizing a sterile gauze pad which Mason carried in his fanny pack. Lieutenant Carlson was promptly notified of the accident by Officer Robla, and plaintiff was eventually stabilized and removed to a secure room in the SHU, and prison medical officials were summoned.*fn8

Plaintiff was thereafter taken to the prison medical unit where six sutures were applied to close his wound, and analgesics were administered in order to ease the pain.

Plaintiff claims that as a result of the incident he has suffered lingering and debilitating effects that include persistent headaches and lower back pain. Plaintiff's medical records substantiate the fact that over time he has periodically complained of back and head pain, for which he has been prescribed a mild non-steroidal prescription analgesic, anti-inflammatory drug. While there is no medical evidence in the record revealing the existence of a medical condition which would cause headaches, the record does contain evidence suggesting that plaintiff has undergone severe disc degeneration of his lower back, although the medical evidence does not directly link the plaintiff's back condition to the incident in question. There is also evidence in plaintiff's medical records to suggest the existence of pre-existing conditions capable of causing both back pain and headaches stemming from various injuries pre-dating the December 19, 2000 fall, including a basketball injury to his back in or about 1992; a pulled back muscle suffered in 1998 while playing basketball; an assault by a fellow inmate in 1993, during which he was stabbed in the head, causing him to experience headaches; and a bumped forehead suffered in January of 2000, also while playing basketball. The evidence submitted at trial regarding plaintiff's activities at ...


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