The opinion of the court was delivered by: Christopher J. McCarthy, J.
Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.
This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the printed Official Reports.
Claimant, Janet Tomaino, has established by a preponderance of the credible evidence that the State of New York was liable in connection with an assault and battery against her when an unnamed court officer used excessive force during an arraignment proceeding. Her Amended Claim also alleges that Defendant was negligent and grossly negligent in the selection, training and supervision of its court officers. No evidence was presented, however, in connection with the negligent training and supervision causes of action. Consequently, that branch of her Claim is dismissed.
A bifurcated trial of the Claim, addressing liability issues only, was held at the Court of Claims in Hauppauge, New York on July 15, 2008. There were three witnesses: Claimant; her husband, Santino Tomaino; and Lieutenant William Trentini, the supervisor of the court officers. The parties also were permitted to submit post-trial memoranda.
Claimant alleges that she was assaulted and battered by an unnamed court officer on the morning of August 27, 2004. She testified that she was in the criminal part of Suffolk County District Court in Central Islip, New York to be arraigned before a judge in open court. Claimant said that she was handcuffed from behind at the time.
Ms. Tomaino agreed that the courtroom where she was arraigned was a big, well-lit, room with perhaps 40 or 50 other people present. Her lawyer and a District Attorney stood nearby. The court officer was behind her. She further agreed that the judge was not far away from her and that they were separated by a railing or barrier, with a flat-topped surface, upon which Claimant could write.
Ms. Tomaino testified that the court officer brought her before the judge to be arraigned and that, while she was before the judge, the court officer suddenly grabbed her two shoulders and forced them together and backwards. A few seconds later, the judge directed the officer to release Claimant from her handcuffs so that she could sign a paper. Claimant testified that, as she proceeded to sign the paper, the court officer grabbed her right elbow forcefully, pushed and pulled on it, and then jerked it backwards. She said that the court officer's actions caused her immediate, severe pain in her shoulders and arm. On cross-examination, Ms. Tomaino said she did not know whether the judge or her lawyer saw what happened to her. She agreed, however, that she did not cry out, or say anything to her lawyer or the judge.*fn1 Claimant said that she "was too petrified to say anything or do anything."*fn2 She also confirmed that she signed the document with her right hand after she had been injured.
On cross-examination, Claimant agreed that she was arrested by Suffolk County police the day before the incident, was in custody overnight, and also was injured by the Suffolk County police during that period of incarceration preceding her arraignment. She alleges that the Suffolk County police: pushed and shoved her, caused her to fall, scraping and bruising her knees; frisked her roughly, resulting in abrasions to her back; and put her in handcuffs that caused swelling and bruising to her wrists. She filed a Federal lawsuit concerning her alleged injuries at the hands of the Suffolk County police.
Claimant testified that she sought medical attention later that evening after she was released from custody. She presented at the hospital complaining of shoulder pain and pain in her right elbow, hands, fingers and her knees. Ms. Tomaino graded the severity of her pain as an eight on a scale of one to ten (see Ex. 1, p. 2). She described her discomfort as "a nagging soreness, like someone beat me up. It was just horrible." Mr. Tomaino testified that he took his wife to the hospital and confirmed that she was in a lot of pain. Hospital tests confirmed that her shoulder was not fractured or broken. She spent a couple of hours at the hospital that night and was given pain medication (see Ex. 1, pp. 1-12). Claimant testified that, after the incident, she could not fully extend her arm because of soreness in her right shoulder and elbow. She kept her right arm in a sling for about 10 days thereafter.
Claimant returned to the hospital on August 31, 2004 complaining of continued pain (see Ex. 1, pp. 13-22). Pain medication again was given to her. Ms. Tomaino said that she was told to soak the affected area. Her husband applied liniment to her shoulders each night for about two weeks, during which time her pain diminished and then abated. On cross-examination, she agreed that she suffered no permanent injury to her shoulder and it recovered completely within two to three weeks.
Claimant reported that she remains "totally upset to this day" about the way she was treated and continues to suffer emotional distress. She does not want to go to court, or watch courtroom dramas on television. "I fear them." Claimant testified that the case in which she was being arraigned on the day of the incident subsequently was dismissed (see Ex. 2).
Lieutenant William Trentini testified that he has been a New York State court officer for 21 years. He has worked for 18 years in the in-custody arraignment part at the courthouse in Central Islip, New York, the past 13 years as a supervisor. He explained procedures in the courtroom. Seven court officers are assigned to the courtroom. Three more are assigned to an adjacent hallway that leads to the Suffolk County Sheriff's prisoner detention area. When a prisoner's name is called, one of the court officers brings him or her before the judge. The prisoner's cuffs are removed if he or she needs to sign a document.
Ms. Tomaino testified that, as far as she knew, she did not file any complaint or grievance against the court officer that day, or at anytime thereafter. Lieutenant Trentini, likewise, testified that he searched the records of his office and found no evidence of a complaint filed by Claimant. Lieutenant Trentini stated that he first became aware of the Claim seven months ago and tried, unsuccessfully, to identify the court officer involved in the incident. He explained that 90 court officers work in Suffolk County District Court. Additional court officers work at the same Central Islip facility in Supreme Court and Family Court. While the court officers work according to a schedule, the witness noted that daily adjustments have to be made because of illnesses, vacations, court appearances, training sessions, etc. Even those officers that are on duty may be absent from the courtroom for short periods for personal breaks and to ...