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Battle v. State

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

October 19, 2015

Willie Battle et al.
v.
State of Rhode Island.

Providence County Superior Court, (PC 09-1165) Associate Justice Jeffery A. Lanphear

For Plaintiff: Ronald J. Resmini, Esq.

For Defendant: Thomas A. Palombo Department of Attorney General

Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

OPINION

Maureen McKenna Goldberg Associate Justice

This case came before the Supreme Court on October 1, 2015, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. The plaintiff, Willie Battle (plaintiff), appeals from the trial justice's denial of his motion for a new trial, [1] following a jury verdict in favor of the defendant, the State of Rhode Island (state). After hearing the arguments of counsel and reviewing the memoranda submitted by the parties, we conclude that cause has not been shown and proceed to decide this appeal. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

Facts and Travel

This action arises from injuries plaintiff suffered as a result of a fall while he was incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI). On February 14, 2007, plaintiff and approximately 150 of his fellow inmates were conducted on foot as part of a routine "movement" of inmates from the cellblocks to the ACI's medium-security education facility. There, plaintiff had been scheduled to attend morning classes as part of a six-month rehabilitative program for inmates. That morning, however, plaintiff slipped and fell as he entered the building. The plaintiff seriously injured his back in the fall, which eventually required surgery. The plaintiff, who has since been released from the ACI, now walks with a limp and reports continuing discomfort. He filed a complaint in Providence County Superior Court on February 26, 2009, alleging negligence by the state in failing to reasonably maintain the premises.[2] The negligence action proceeded to trial on May 22, 2013.

The first two witnesses called by plaintiff to testify were David Melikian (Officer Melikian) and Roger Boccanfuso (Officer Boccanfuso), corrections officers who had seen plaintiff fall. Both recalled that there was inclement weather that morning; Officer Boccanfuso specifically remembered "severe downpours." Both witnesses testified that inmate porters mop the floors near the building's entrance to keep the area dry when it rains or snows. Both testified that, on such days, they or fellow ACI guards would caution inmates that the floors might be wet as they entered the building. Each witness testified that inmate porters would place "wet floor" signs in the area and that one or two large mats covered the floor at all times.

Next, plaintiff called Archangel Barboza (Ms. Barboza) to testify. Ms. Barboza stated that she works as a teacher for the Department of Corrections in the building where plaintiff fell. She recalled that she had slipped and injured her leg by the building's entrance on a rainy day in 2006. She also said that, on or around the day plaintiff fell, she had slipped but avoided injury in an area near where plaintiff fell.

The plaintiff also testified at trial. Recounting the moments leading up to the incident, he stated that it had been raining that morning and that newly fallen snow was melting on the ground. He told the jury, "[A]s we [were] going to the building, I didn't think nothing of it * * *. I was just doing what I normally do, * * * and * * * when I got in the building, I didn't think nothing." The plaintiff stated that an object similar to a mat had been on the floor to wipe his feet on, but he insisted the object was not a mat. He did not recall hearing any warnings about wet floors from the corrections officers as he entered the building, yet he conceded on cross-examination that officers may have cautioned inmates on other rainy days. Similarly, plaintiff testified that he had not seen inmate porters cleaning the area prior to his fall, but he admitted on cross-examination that they might have been present.

The plaintiff rested, and the state did not present any witnesses. The plaintiff then moved for judgment as a matter of law, which the trial justice denied. On May 24, 2013, following deliberations, the jury found that the state was not negligent.

On May 31, 2013, plaintiff moved for the Superior Court to "vacate the jury verdict * * * and * * * grant a new trial and/or additur to the Plaintiff." In support of the motions, plaintiff argued for the first time that, "not only was this a case of simply negligence and egregious conduct, it [was] also a case to be considered for strict liability." The plaintiff contended that the state should be held strictly liable for his injuries because it had been engaging in an abnormally dangerous activity at the time plaintiff fell. According to plaintiff, the state engaged in such activity by forcing inmates to walk in a potentially slippery area that could not be made safer even with a floor mat, "wet floor" signs, continuous cleanup, or verbal warnings. The trial justice denied ...


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