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Torres v. Amato

United States District Court, N.D. New York

May 16, 2014

LUIS A. TORRES, SR., as the administrator of the Estate of Luis A. Torres, Jr., Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL AMATO; JEFFREY SMITH; COUNTY OF MONTGOMERY; MICHAEL FRANCO; TERRY A. CARTER; and PAUL A. DAW, Defendants

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Plaintiff: ELMER R. KEACH, III, ESQ., OF COUNSEL, LAW OFFICES OF ELMER, ROBERT KEACH, III, PC, Albany, New York.

For Defendants: MURRY S. BROWER, ESQ., OF COUNSEL, LAW OFFICE OF THERESA J. PULEO, Albany, New York.

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MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

Mae A. D'Agostino, U.S. District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

On October 12, 2011, Luis A. Torres, Sr., as administrator of the estate of Luis A. Torres, Jr. (hereinafter " Plaintiff" ), commenced this civil rights suit, alleging that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's health and safety, pursuant to the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. See Dkt. No. 1. Plaintiff also alleges claims for negligence, gross negligence, and wrongful death pursuant to New York State law. See id.

Currently pending before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment. See Dkt. No. 47.

II. BACKGROUND[1]

On the morning of October 13, 2010, Plaintiff was transported to the Amsterdam City Court for a court appearance. Plaintiff was transported to this appearance by Defendants Carter and Daw in a van operated by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department.

After the court proceedings were over, the inmates were escorted to the corrections van. Plaintiff was not placed in a seat belt by either Defendant Daw or Defendant Carter. See Dkt. No. 58 at ¶ 2. The van was driven to the Montgomery County Correctional Facility by Defendant

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Carter. See id. at ¶ 3. As the van neared the Montgomery County Public Safety Building, Defendant Carter executed a left turn, at which point Plaintiff exited the vehicle. Upon exiting the vehicle, Plaintiff sustained fatal injuries to his head and died shortly thereafter.

Defendants contend that a " [w]itness to the speed of the vehicle as it turned indicate that the speed of the vehicle was between 10 to 20 mph when the turn began. None of the witnesses said it was an unsafe rate of speed." Dkt. No. 47 at ¶ 4 (citations omitted). Plaintiff, however, denies this allegation, and contend that " Defendants are well-aware that Ramon Valentin, an inmate in the van on October 13, 2010, testified that the van was being driven at an unsafe rate of speed at the time of the accident, and that the left turn in question, from Route 4S onto Clark Drive in the Village of Fultonville, was also taken at an unsafe rate of speed." Dkt. No. 58 at ¶ 4 (citing Valentin Dep., p. 7:4-6, 7:10-15, 53:16-22, 84:15-17).

Defendant Carter testified that he locked the side door to the van after the inmates were loaded and checked to make sure that the door was locked and closed. See Dkt. No. 47 at ¶ 6 (citing Deposition of Terry Carter at Pages 35-36, 41). Moreover, Defendant Daw testified that he also checked the door to make sure that it was locked and closed securely before leaving the Amsterdam Police Court. See id. at ¶ 7 (citing Deposition of Paul Daw at 36, 53-54). Although Plaintiff admits that Defendants Carter and Daw testified that they performed these tasks, Plaintiff contends that Defendants Carter and Daw failed to lock the door or ensure that it was closed securely. See Dkt. No. 58 at ¶ ¶ 6-7 (citation omitted). Mr. Valentin testified that Defendant Carter did not lock the door with a key, but rather " 'just threw the door for it to lock[.]'" Id. (quoting Valentin Dep., p. 22:11-13, 25:3-9). Further, Plaintiff contends that his expert " has opined that the door was either improperly latched at the time of the accident, or had a defective latching mechanism." Id. (citing Exhibit " L" ).

Additionally, Defendants contend that " inmates could take seatbelts off themselves even if seat belted because their hands were free and there was slack in the waist chain." Dkt. No. 47 at ¶ 8 (citations omitted). Plaintiff denies this allegation, and asserts that " Ramon Valentin testified that detainees are restrictively confined in handcuffs and ankle shackles, with chains being fed through a 'black box' that severely limits movement." Dkt. No. 58 at ¶ 8 (citing Valentin Dep., p. 30:3-15). Further, Plaintiff contends that Defendant " Carter also admitted that inmates could not properly utilize seat belts without the assistance of a Corrections Officer." Id. (citing Carter Deposition, p. 17:3-10).

Moreover, Defendants contend that Defendants Carter and Daw " were aware of the written policy of the Sheriff that required seat belting of inmates while being transported." Dkt. No. 47 at ¶ 9 (citing Deposition of Paul Daw at 14, 101-02; Deposition of Terry Carter at 16). Plaintiff, however, contends that Defendant Daw testified that there were two written policies, " and one of them (of which he was familiar) did not require that inmates being transported be placed in seat belts." Dkt. No. 58 at ¶ 9 (citing Daw Dep., p. 17:5-11). Plaintiff asserts that Defendant Daw provided this policy to the Sheriff, and that the policy was later amended to require that inmates be seat belted. Id. (citing Exhibits " P" and " T" ).

According to Defendants, they did not place seatbelts on the inmates for personal safety reasons. See Dkt. No. 47 at ¶ 10 (citations omitted). Plaintiff, however, contends that there were ways available at

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the time of this incident that would have permitted corrections officers to safely assist the inmates in fastening the safety belts, but that they did not employ these methods until shortly after Plaintiff's death. See Dkt. No. 58 at ¶ 10 (citing Valentin Dep., p. 33:20-34:5). Further, Plaintiff claims that, contrary to Defendants' assertion, inmates were not able to fasten seatbelts for themselves. See id. at ¶ 11 (citing Carter Dep., p. 17:3-10).

Defendants further contend that, after the incident, the door locks on the van were disabled. See Dkt. No. 47 at ¶ 12. Plaintiff, however, denies this allegation and contends that the door in question was not preserved after this incident, despite the " immediate requests of Plaintiff and obvious likelihood of litigation[.]" Dkt. No. 58 at ¶ 12 (citing Exhibit " M" ). Further, for the same reasons, Plaintiff denies Defendants' statement that " [t]he locks were not disabled before October 13, 2010 although usually done by the dealer it was not checked by the Sheriff or Under Sheriff." Dkt. No. 47 at ¶ 13 (citations omitted); Dkt. No. 58 at ¶ 13 (citations omitted). Plaintiff claims that the Sheriff's investigation did not include inspecting the child locks on the transport van and that it is the opinion of Plaintiff's expert " that the latching mechanism on the van was defective, especially given that there are parts on the van associated with the door latches that appear to have been changed subsequent to purchase of the van." Dkt. No. 58 at ¶ 13 (citations omitted).

In their motion for summary judgment, Defendants first argue that Plaintiff has failed to establish a violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights through Defendants' failure to restrain him with a seatbelt. See Dkt. No. 47 at 9-15.[2] Defendants contend that, at the time of this accident, the other district courts in the Second Circuit had concluded that there was no violation of a civil right when inmates seated in the rear of a transport vehicle were not placed in or supplied with seatbelts. See id. at 10. Next, Defendants assert that Plaintiff has failed to establish Monell liability against the County or its policy makers. See id. at 10, 14. Further, Defendants contend that Plaintiff has failed to establish that Defendants Amato, Smith and Franco were personally involved with any of the alleged unconstitutional conduct. See id. at 14. Finally, Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity. See id. at 15-17. Specifically, Defendants contend that it was not clearly established law in 2010 that failing to place Plaintiff in a seatbelt would violate his constitutional rights secured by the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments. See id.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of review

A court may grant a motion for summary judgment only if it determines that there is no genuine issue of material fact to be tried and that the facts as to which there is no such issue warrant judgment for the movant as a matter of law. See Chambers v. TRM Copy Ctrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 36 (2d Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). When analyzing a summary judgment motion, the court " 'cannot try issues of fact; it can only determine whether there are issues to be tried.'" Id. at 36-37 (quotation and other citation omitted). Moreover, it is well-settled that a party opposing a motion for summary judgment

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may not simply rely on the assertions in its pleading. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), (e)).

In assessing the record to determine whether any such issues of material fact exist, the court is required to resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. See Chambers, 43 F.3d at 36 (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2513-14, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)) (other citations omitted). Where the non-movant either does not respond to the motion or fails to dispute the movant's statement of material facts, the court may not rely solely on the moving party's Rule 56.1 statement; rather, the court must be satisfied that the citations to evidence in the record support the movant's assertions. See Giannullo v. City of N.Y., 322 F.3d 139, 143 n.5 (2d Cir. 2003) (holding that not verifying in the record the assertions in the motion for summary judgment " would derogate the truth-finding functions of the judicial process by substituting convenience for facts" ).

B. Deliberate indifference under the Fourteenth Amendment[3]

" The Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment requires prison conditions to be 'humane,' though not necessarily 'comfortable.'" Jabbar v. Fischer, 683 F.3d 54, 57 (2d Cir. 2012) (citing Gaston v. Coughlin, 249 F.3d 156, 164 (2d Cir. 2001)) (other citations omitted); see also U.S. Const. amend. VIII. To establish an Eighth Amendment violation, an inmate must show: " '(1) a deprivation that is objectively, sufficiently serious that he was denied the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities[; ] and (2) a sufficiently culpable state of mind on the part of the defendant official, such as deliberate indifference to inmate health or safety.'" Id. (quoting Gaston, 249 F.3d at 164) (other citation omitted).

" As to the objective element, there is no 'static test' to determine whether a deprivation is sufficiently serious; '[t]he conditions themselves must be evaluated in light of contemporary standards of decency.'" Jabbar, 683 F.3d at 57 (quoting Blissett v. Coughlin, 66 F.3d 531, 537 (2d Cir. 1995)) (other citation omitted). The Second Circuit has held that " prisoners may not be deprived of their 'basic human needs -- e.g., food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and reasonable safety' -- and they may not be exposed 'to conditions that pose an unreasonable risk of serious damage to [their] future health.'" Id. (quotations omitted).

As for the subjective requirement, deliberate indifference requires " 'more than mere negligence.'" Id. (quoting Farmer, 511 U.S. at 835, 114 S.Ct. 1970). The prison official must know of, and disregard, an excessive risk to inmate health ...


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