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Bonilla v. State

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 19, 2017

THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, et al., Defendants.


          Hon. Freda L. Wolfson United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court upon a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants Jones Farm, AgriIndustries, Commissioner Gary M. Lanigan (improperly named as Raymond Lanigan) (“Defendant Lanigan”), the Department of Corrections (“NJDOC”), and the State of New Jersey (collectively, the “Corrections Defendants”). ECF No. 23. Plaintiff Raymond Bonilla (“Plaintiff”) opposes the motion. ECF No. 26. The Court has decided the motion based on the written submissions of the parties and without oral argument, pursuant to Local Civil Rule 78.1(b). For the reasons stated herein, the Corrections Defendants' motion for summary judgment will be denied.


         This case arises out an injury that Plaintiff allegedly suffered while he was an inmate at Jones Farm, where he was assigned to perform services at the milk processing plant (the “Plant”). See Compl. ¶¶ 9-10. Plaintiff alleges that he sustained a serious injury to his hand while operating a milk packing machine (the “Machine”). Id. at ¶ 18. Plaintiff further alleges that he was not properly trained on how to operate the Machine, was not adequately supervised while operating the Machine, and that the Machine itself was not adequately maintained and was defective or dangerous. Id. at ¶¶ 19-20.

         Except where otherwise noted, the following facts are undisputed. On September 11, 2014, Plaintiff reported to work at the Plant. Def.'s Statement of Material Facts (“Def.'s SOMF”) at ¶ 2, ECF No. 23-2; Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Statement of Material Facts (“Pl.'s Resp. SOMF”) at ¶ 2, ECF No. 26-1. At his deposition, Plaintiff testified that, after reporting to work on September 11, he sustained injuries to his hand while attempting to unclog milk cartons that had become wedged in the Machine, causing it to jam. Deposition of Raymond Bonilla (“Bonilla Dep.”) at 49:15-50:23; 53:23-54:18, ECF No. 26-1; Pl.'s Supp. Statement of Facts (“Pl.'s SSOF”) at ¶ 4, ECF No 26-1; Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Supp. Statement of Facts (“Def.'s Resp. SSOF”) at ¶ 4, ECF No. 27-2. Plaintiff testified that he turned off the Machine prior to attempting to unclog it by reaching for the jam. Bonilla Dep. at 51:7-52:20; 62:16-63:16. However, as Plaintiff was attempting to take out the clogged milk cartons, the Machine turned back on, severing the middle finger on his right hand and injuring his pointer finger. Pl.'s SSOF at ¶ 5; Def.'s Resp. SSOF at ¶ 5. Plaintiff did not call for his supervisor, Jeffrey Halter, to help unclog the Machine prior to attempting to unclog it himself. Def, 's SOMF at ¶ 17; Pl.'s Resp. SOMF at ¶ 17.

         Plaintiff first operated the Machine on September 10, 2016, one day before his injury. Def.'s SOMF at ¶ 11; Pl.'s Resp. SOMF at ¶ 11. On that date, Plaintiff was assigned to the Machine as a substitute for another operator and operated the Machine without incident. Def.'s SOMF at ¶ 11; Pl.'s Resp. SOMF at ¶ 11. Everyone who had worked on the Machine before Plaintiff had received training on how to operate the Machine. Pl.'s SSOF at ¶ 10; Def.'s Resp. SSOF at ¶ 10. Plaintiff's supervisor, Halter, was responsible for training inmates on how to do their jobs properly and safely. Pl.'s SSOF at ¶ 24; Def.'s Resp. SSOF at ¶ 24. After Plaintiff sustained his injury, Halter wrote Plaintiff a disciplinary charge for not following safety procedures. Pl.'s SSOF at ¶ 15; Def.'s Resp. SSOF at ¶ 15.

         Defendants maintain an Inmate Safety Training Receipt Form (the “Form”) for inmates to sign after they have been trained on a particular piece of equipment. Pl.'s SSOF at ¶ 11; Def.'s Resp. SSOF at 11. Defendants do not know whether the Form existed and was in use at the time of Plaintiff's injury. Deposition of Jeffrey Halter (“Halter Dep.”) at 39:18-25. It is undisputed, however, that, if the Form existed at the time, Plaintiff would have completed the Form after receiving training on the Machine. Pl.'s SSOF at ¶ 13; Def.'s Resp. SSOF at ¶ 13. Nevertheless, during discovery for the present action, Defendants failed to produce an Inmate Safety Training Receipt Form for the Machine with Plaintiff's signature. Pl.'s SSOF at ¶ 14; Def.'s Resp. SSOF at 15.

         Certain other facts remain in dispute. The parties dispute whether Plaintiff was ever trained on the Machine, and whether Halter was in the building at the time of Plaintiff's injury. Pl.'s SSOF at ¶¶ 6, 9, 23; Def.'s Resp. SSOF at ¶¶ 6, 9, 23. The parties also dispute whether Plaintiff was ever specifically told not to stick his hands in the Machine. Pl.'s Resp. SOMF at ¶ 19. Plaintiff testified that, based on his experience, he thought that he should clean out a clog in the Machine himself. Bonilla Dep. at 62:16-62:22. The parties also dispute whether Defendants were aware of other similar incidents involving injuries to workers. Pl.'s SSOF at ¶ 22; Def.'s Resp. SSOF at ¶ 22. Additionally, Plaintiff claims that there was duct tape covering a sensor on the Machine at the time of the incident. Bonilla Dep. at 69:4-69:13. Halter testified that there had never been duct tape on the Machine. Halter Dep. at 31:13-31:18.

         Plaintiff's Complaint was originally filed in state court, and was removed to this Court on November 11, 2015. See ECF No. 1-3. The Complaint contains three counts against all Defendants, including the Corrections Defendants: (1) Count I alleges a state law claim of Negligence against all Defendants; (2) Count III alleges a state law claim of Willful, Wanton, Outrageous, and Reckless Conduct against all Defendants; and (3) Count IV alleges that all Defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by failing to train or supervise staff and inmates in connection with the Machine, and failing to establish and maintain adequate safety procedures. Compl. ¶¶ 9-24.[1]

         On May 10, 2016, the Court granted the Corrections Defendants' motion to dismiss Count IV of the Complaint. See ECF Nos. 12-13. The Court dismissed Count IV of the Complaint with prejudice against the State of New Jersey, the NJDOC, Jones Farm, and AgriIndustries, and Defendant Lanigan is his official capacity. Id. The Court directed Plaintiff to seek leave to file an Amended Complaint if he sought to bring personal capacity claims against Defendant Lanigan. Id. Plaintiff did not do so. Only state law claims remain. The parties have since engaged in discovery, and the Corrections Defendants filed the present motion for summary judgment. The Court now considers the Corrections Defendants' motion.


         Summary judgment is appropriate where the Court is satisfied that “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). A factual dispute is genuine only if there is “a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party, ” and it is material only if it has the ability to “affect the outcome of the suit under governing law.” Kaucher v. County of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence; instead, the non-moving party's evidence ‘is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.'” Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255)); see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 276-77 (3d Cir. 2002). In deciding the merits of a party's motion for summary judgment, the court's role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

         The burden of establishing that no “genuine issue” exists is on the party moving for summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 330. “A nonmoving party has created a genuine issue of material fact if it has provided sufficient evidence to allow a jury to find in its favor at trial.” Gleason v. Norwest Mortg., Inc., 243 F.3d 130, 138 (3d Cir. 2001). The non-moving party must present “more than a scintilla of evidence showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Woloszyn v. County of Lawrence, 396 F.3d 314, 319 (3d Cir. 2005) (quotations omitted). Under Anderson, plaintiffs' proffered evidence must be sufficient to meet the substantive evidentiary standard the jury would have to use at trial. 477 U.S. at 255. To do so, the non-moving party must “go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (quotations omitted); see also Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; Ridgewood Bd. of Ed. v. Stokley, 172 F.3d 238, 252 (3d Cir. 1999). There can be “no genuine issue as to any material fact, ” however, if a party fails “to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. “[A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. at 323; Katz v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 972 F.2d 53, 55 (3d Cir. 1992).


         As a threshold matter, Plaintiff has not sought leave of this Court to amend his Complaint to bring any § 1983 claims against Defendant Lanigan in his personal capacity. Accordingly, the Court need only address the remaining state law claims raised against the Corrections Defendants, contained in Counts I and III of the Complaint. The Court retains supplemental jurisdiction over those claims, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

         I. Count I: Negligence

         In Count I, Plaintiff brings a claim for negligence, pursuant to the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (“NJTCA”), N.J.S.A. § 59:1-1, et seq. As the parties do in their briefs, the Court construes Count I as including two claims: (A) one claim related to the allegedly dangerous or defective condition of the Machine; and (B) a second claim for negligent training or supervision. At the outset, the parties dispute which standard for negligence liability under the NJTCA should apply to Plaintiff's claim. Defendants argue that Plaintiff's negligence claim, insofar as it alleges a dangerous or defective condition, is governed by the “palpably unreasonable” standard codified at N.J.S.A. § 59:4-2. Plaintiff argues that his entire negligence claim should be governed by the ordinary negligence standard codified at N.J.S.A. § 59:2-2. As explained below, Defendants have correctly identified the applicable standard.

         A. Dangerous Condition Claim

         Under the NJTCA, N.J.S.A. § 59:2-2 sets forth the general rule of vicarious liability for a public entity, while N.J.S.A. § 59:4-2 provides the rule for liability for a public entity with regard to any dangerous condition of public property. Ogborne v. Mercer Cemetery Corp., 197 N.J. 448, 452 (2009). Specifically, “N.J.S.A. 59:2-2 governs a plaintiff's cause of action when it turns on whether a public employee was ordinarily negligent in undertaking the action that caused the plaintiff's injury.” Id. at 457. N.J.S.A. § 59:2-2 provides:

a. A public entity is liable for injury proximately caused by an act or omission of a public employee within the scope of his employment in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances.
b. A public entity is not liable for an injury resulting from an act or omission of a public employee where the public employee is not liable.

N.J.S.A. § 59:2-2.

         By contrast, N.J.S.A. § 59:4-2 “states that a public entity will only be liable for injuries resulting from a dangerous condition of property created by an employee's negligence if the entity acted in a palpably unreasonable manner in failing to protect against the condition.” Ogborne, 197 N.J. at 458. That provision provides:

         A public entity is liable for injury caused by a condition of its property if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and that either:

a. a negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment created the dangerous condition; or
b. a public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition under section 59:4-3 a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.

Nothing in this section shall be construed to impose liability upon a public entity for a dangerous condition of its public property if the action the entity took to ...

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