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Tatum v. City of New York

November 3, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul G. Gardephe, U.S.D.J.


In this action, Plaintiff Stevie Tatum seeks relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and New York state law for severe injuries he suffered as a pre-trial detainee when he was assaulted by other inmates at Rikers Island. (Second Amended Complaint ("Cmplt.") (Docket No. 29) ¶¶ 1-3) He alleges, inter alia, that Defendant Renee Jackson, the correction officer on duty in his Rikers Island dormitory at the time of the assault, was deliberately indifferent to the assault; conspired with the inmates who assaulted him; and aided and abetted the assault. (Id. ¶¶ 10, 50-59, 73-74) Following a five-day trial, a jury rendered a verdict in Tatum's favor against Jackson and awarded Tatum $1 million in compensatory damages. The Court entered judgment against Jackson on July 30, 2009. (Docket No. 94) Now pending before the Court is Jackson's motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, for a new trial. (Docket No. 96) For the reasons stated below, Jackson's motion is DENIED.



A. Tatum's Claims

Tatum's Complaint asserted claims against Jackson, the City of New York (the "City"), and Terreem Martin, one of the inmates who allegedly assaulted him.*fn1 (Cmplt. ¶¶ 50-60) Jackson and the City moved for summary judgment, which was granted in part. (Docket No. 44) All claims against the City were dismissed, although it remained potentially liable under a respondeat superior theory in connection with aiding-and-abetting assault and battery claims against Jackson. (Id. at 31) Tatum proceeded to trial on a Section 1983 deliberate indifference claim against Jackson; a Section 1983 conspiracy claim against Jackson and Martin; a Section 1983 excessive force claim against Martin and a related aiding-and-abetting claim against Jackson; state law assault and battery claims against Martin; and related state law aiding-and-abetting claims against Jackson. (Id. at 31)

B. The Evidence At Trial

At trial, the parties did not dispute the following facts: As of April 28, 2005, Tatum was being detained at Rikers Island as a result of a DWI charge on which he could not make bail. (Tr. 476:12-15, 493:1-25) On April 28, after attending the first day of his trial on the DWI charge, Tatum missed the regular bus back to Rikers Island from the courthouse, and he did not arrive back at his assigned dormitory (referred to as "Mod 2") until approximately 3:30 a.m. on April 29. (Tr. 494:1-11) Defendant Jackson was the correction officer on duty in Mod 2 at that time. (Tr. 184:13-17)

The parties also did not dispute that Tatum was severely injured by other inmates in the early morning of April 29. As explained by Tatum's medical expert, Dr. Richard Sullivan, Tatum suffered two fractures in his jaw bone and fractures on either side of his upper nasal bones. (Tr. 364:17-20, 368:10-14) The first jaw fracture was sustained on the upper right side of Tatum's face, near the joint where the jaw hinges. (Tr. 364:20-365:3) The second fracture -- in Tatum's lower jaw bone -- was a "comminuted and open fracture" -- i.e., Tatum's lower jaw bone was fractured into several pieces. (Tr. 367:13-368:3) Dr. Sullivan testified that the first fracture of Tatum's jaw was caused by "[a] very substantial direct blow" and would cause "severe pain" (Tr. 365:18-24, 366:7-25), and the second fracture was caused by a "very, very strong blow," and would hurt in the range of a nine or ten on a scale of "ten being the worst [pain] you could imagine." (Tr. 369:9-14, 370:1-5)

The parties' testimony diverged on other key issues, including the events leading up to Tatum's injury and whether he had been assaulted once or twice by other inmates.

1. Tatum's Testimony

Tatum's version of the events of April 29 was as follows: When Tatum entered Mod 2, Jackson was conversing with other inmates. (Tr. 497:3-7) Tatum went to the bed he had been assigned (Bed 34), but found it occupied. (Tr. 498:1-10) When Tatum reported this to Jackson -- who was sitting at her post -- she responded that he should take Bed 36. (Tr. 498:11-17) Tatum found that Bed 36 did not have a second mattress -- which he had been prescribed due to a back injury -- and complained to Jackson. (Tr. 499:1-8, 501:3-9) Jackson responded that there was nothing she could do about it, and other inmates then "began to make fun and ridicule" Tatum. (Tr. 502:1-7) Jackson told the inmates that they were "acting like children." (Tr. 502:12-20) Tatum, who had returned to Bed 36, expressed his agreement with Jackson by saying "word." (Tr. 502:12-503:5)

The inmate in the bed next to Bed 36 (Bed 30) asked Tatum why he had agreed with Jackson, and Tatum said that he was not talking to the inmate. (Tr. 503:10-506:6) Jackson told them: "You guys need to shut the fuck up." (Tr. 506:10-13) The inmate responded, "You need to shut the fuck up." (Tr. 506:14-17) Jackson asked what was going on, and the inmate told Jackson that Tatum was "popping shit" at her -- i.e., "disrespecting" her. (Tr. 506:14-25) Jackson "became irate" and began "spew[ing] profanities." (Tr. 507:8-9) Jackson moved toward Tatum's bed, "cussing" and saying "I don't know this mother fucker, who the hell he think he is, he don't disrespect me in my house." (Tr. 507:17-24) Another inmate moved to block Jackson, and the inmate in Bed 30 jumped up towards Tatum, who rolled off his bed onto the floor. (Tr. 508:4-21, 509:3-10) The inmate in Bed 30 and the inmate who had blocked Jackson jumped on Tatum and started "punching and kicking" him, while Jackson continued to "curs[e] and talk[] crazy." (Tr. 509:11-16)

After "a few minutes," the attack stopped. (Tr. 511:13-16) Tatum went into the bathroom (Tr. 512:6-8), while Jackson continued to curse (Tr. 513:15-514:11). Tatum's mouth and nose were "bleeding profusely" at that point. (Tr. 515:6-7) While Tatum was at the sink cleaning up, the inmates who had attacked him came into the bathroom and "immediately started punching" him, and a crowd gathered. (Tr. 517:10- 25) It was during the second attack that Tatum felt the blows to his jaw, one of which knocked him into the wall. (Tr. 518:8-24) This attack was "very brief." (Tr. 519:2-4)

The altercation caught the attention of a correction officer in the "bubble" -- an enclosed office between Mod 2 and another dormitory, which had windows into the dormitories -- who "banged on the window" and then entered Mod 2 and separated Tatum from his attackers by moving Tatum into a vestibule outside Mod 2. (Tr. 520:1-8, 20-23) At about the same time, a group of officers in protective gear entered. (Tr. 520:15-19) A supervising officer came down, went into Mod 2 for a few minutes, and returned to the vestibule. (Tr. 521:6-18) Tatum was "in excruciating pain," his jaw was beginning to swell, and he was bleeding. (Tr. 521:4, 521:22-25, 523:13-19) He asked the supervising officer for medical attention, and the officer responded: "You disrespect my officer then when you get your ass kicked you expect us to come and help you?" (Tr. 521:25-522:2) After a "substantial amount of time," Tatum was taken to the infirmary. (Tr. 523:13-524:1)

Tatum's fractured jaw caused intense pain during the year following the assault, and required two surgeries to repair. (Tr. 539:13-540:5, 540:16-541:8, 542:1-4) After the first surgery, his jaw was wired shut for eight weeks. (Tr. 373:9-14) The jaw did not heal properly, however, and a year after the assault, his jaw was sawed open and reset, and then wired shut for another eight weeks. (Tr. 374:21-375:1, 376:7-16, 377:20-22; PX 5 at NYC 342-48) Ultimately, Tatum's jaw was secured through the insertion of four metal plates and 16 screws in his face. (PX 5 at NYC 342-48) He continues to suffer chronic pain; his teeth are falling out due to bone loss; and he has only a limited ability to chew food. (Tr. 379:7-11, 552:1-20, 554:21-556:16, 556:23-557:25)

2. Jackson's Testimony

Jackson's account of the altercation was much different than Tatum's. She testified that Tatum was involved in one fight, near his bed, which started because other inmates were annoyed that Tatum was being noisy and ended when she told the inmates to stop fighting.

According to Jackson, a few minutes after Tatum arrived at Mod 2, he asked to take a shower, and Jackson told him that he could not. (Tr. 277:9-20) Tatum began cursing at her, and she "cursed right back at him." (Tr. 278:3-6) Several inmates asked them to lower their voices. (Tr. 278:17-23) Jackson testified that a fight then began: "Before I knew anything [Tatum] said something to one of the guys in the house, . . . and before I knew anything, couple of seconds I just seen fists going, they just started fighting." (Tr. 279:9-13) Although Jackson was only six or eight feet away from Tatum, she did not see who started the fight because she was writing in her logbook at the time. (Tr. 329:13-330:8)

Jackson "gave [the inmates who were fighting] several verbal commands for them to stop fighting," which they did. (Tr. 279:19-22) The fight lasted "[a] few seconds." (Tr. 280:1-3) Then the officer in the bubble turned the lights on and "[e]verything . . . ceased." (Tr. 280:4-9) Jackson took Tatum outside the dormitory "for his own safety." (Tr. 280:8-15)

3. Other Witnesses' Testimony

Defendant Terreem Martin and Correction Officer William Buford also testified at trial, but neither witness corroborated either version of events, because each claimed not to have seen the assault or assaults. Martin testified that he went to sleep at 10:00 or 10:30 p.m. after taking medication for depression and did not wake up until the lights were turned on and the officers in protective gear came into the dormitory. (Tr. 854:1-6, 855:22-25) Buford -- the officer in the bubble -- testified that he heard "thumping" and heard Officer Jackson "yell . . . something to the effect of stop, stop fighting." (Tr. 752:3-6) He then turned on the lights and -- from the bubble -- observed three inmates near his window. (Tr. 753:24-754:11) When Buford first became aware of the "thumping," however, his back was turned to the windows overlooking Mod 2. (Tr. 770:11-20) He acknowledged that he did not see how Tatum's injuries were sustained. (Tr. 779:1-4)

C. The Verdict

The jury found that Tatum had not proven any of his claims against Martin, who pursued a misidentification defense at trial. (Tr. 988:25-989:1, 1120-25) Therefore, the jury did not consider whether Tatum had proven the conspiracy claim or the aiding-and-abetting claims against Jackson. The jury did find, however, that Tatum had proven his deliberate indifference claim against Jackson. (Tr. 1119:21-25) The jury awarded ...

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