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Cynor v. Lassiter

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

August 29, 2017

JEFFERY LASSITER, Correctional Enterprise Manager, Defendant.[1]


          Louise W. Flanagan, United States District Judge

         The matter now comes before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment (DE 27) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The issues raised have been fully briefed and are ripe for adjudication. For the following reasons, the court grants defendant's motion.


         On May 28, 2015, plaintiff, a state inmate, filed this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging defendants violated his constitutional rights by creating an unsafe work environment that caused him to suffer “severe second and third degree burns. ” (C o m p l . (D E 1 - 1) a t 7) . T h e c o u r t conducted a frivolity review on December 3, 2015 and dismissed former defendants North Carolina Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) and Correctional Enterprise from this action (DE 8). Plaintiff's claims against Jo Lassiter (“Lassiter”) survived review. On April 26, 2016, plaintiff filed a motion to amend his complaint to correctly reflect Lassiter's name as Jeffery Lassiter (DE 18), which was granted (DE 24).

         Lassiter filed the instant motion for summary judgment on October 28, 2016. In support thereof, Lassiter attaches the following: 1) DPS Offender Public Information report pertaining to plaintiff; 2) affidavit of Finesse Couch, executive director of North Carolina inmate grievance resolution board with relevant grievances; 3) affidavit of Joe Simpson, director of safety, occupational and environmental Health for DPS with relevant policies and accident report; 4) affidavit of defendant Lassiter with exhibits; and 5) affidavit of Lori Lou Jackson, lead nurse/nurse supervisor at Caledonia Correctional Institution (“Caledonia”) along with relevant medical records. (See DE 30).

         Plaintiff submitted a letter to the court on December 14, 2016, which the court construes as his response to the instant summary judgment motion (DE 36).


         The facts viewed in light most favorable to plaintiff may be summarized as follows. Plaintiff's claims are centered on his assertion that Lassiter was deliberately indifferent to his safety by creating a hazardous work environment. (See, e.g., Compl. (DE 1-1), p. 3). Plaintiff is a state inmate serving a life sentence. (See DE 30-1). Defendant is employed by Correctional Enterprise as a manager for Caledonia Cannery (“cannery”). (Lassiter Aff. (DE 30-4) ¶ 3). Correctional Enterprise trains inmates by mirroring a work environment. (Id. ¶ 4). The cannery processes and cans crops grown on the premises for distribution to prison kitchens. (Id. ¶ 5). Plaintiff began working at the cannery on October 8, 2013. (Id. ¶ 8). Before starting, plaintiff received orientation and training on all cannery machinery. (Id. ¶¶ 12, 14). This training included a review of proper safety procedures and practice. (Id.) Plaintiff signed an acknowledgment indicating he received this training on January 19, 2012. (Id. ¶¶ 11, 13). Similarly, an Inmate Work Program Manual was also reviewed with plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 14). After this review, plaintiff again acknowledged that he was provided with training on the safe operation of cannery equipment. (Id.) In addition to this training, plaintiff was instructed to ask for assistance whenever he needed help. (Id. ¶ 12). Plaintiff was notified that failure to adhere to proper procedures and rules would result in his dismissal from Correctional Enterprise. (Id. ¶ 14). Work gloves and aprons were available to plaintiff while he was working. (Id. ¶ 15).

         At the cannery, there are eight retorts operating simultaneously, and it is the job of the front retort operator to monitor the lights on the control panel to determine which retort is nearing the cooking completion cycle. (Simpson Aff. (DE 30-3) ¶ 14). A blue light indicates an approximately 10 minute long cooling cycle. (Id.) When the light turns red, the front operator must then monitor a steam gauge to ensure the reading is “0 PSI.” (Id.) After this verification, the front operator must open the steam valve located on top on the retort lid to ensure that there is not any latent steam remaining in the retort. (Id., ¶ 15). If steam is still escaping through the valve, the operator is to close the valve and extend the cooling period. (Id.) When steam is no longer escaping from the valve, the front operator signals the back operator. (Id.) As an additional precaution, the front operator stands to one side and loosens the front lid securing clamps. (Id.) This precaution allows any remaining steam to exit and reduces the possibility of injury for those standing near the securing clamp location. (Id. ¶ 17). If no steam escapes, the front operator indicates to the back operators that the clamps can be removed. (Id. ¶ 16).

         On November 6, 2013, plaintiff was assisting another inmate with removing baskets of cooked vegetables from the retorts. (Id. ¶ 18). The cooking cycle was ending on retort number three, and plaintiff was working as the front retort operator. (Id.) Plaintiff was burned with steam, incurring second degree burns on both legs. (Id.). DPS investigated the incident. (Id. ¶¶ 6-8). It was determined that plaintiff failed to ensure that steam had been fully released from the retort. (Id. ¶ 19). Likewise, plaintiff did not stand to one side and loosen the securing clamp before fully opening it. (Id.) The investigation further revealed that plaintiff had been properly trained, and, to this end, plaintiff verified that he understood the proper safety procedures for operating the retort equipment after the incident. (Id. ¶¶ 21-22). Likewise, reasonable safety equipment was provided for plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 25). Based on these findings, it was determined that plaintiff's injuries were caused by his failure to follow the proper safety procedures and guidelines for operating the retort. (Id. ¶ 24). There is no evidence on the record indicating that defendant was directly involved in this incident. Nor is there any evidence that defendant had actual or constructive knowledge that any of his subordinates were engaged in conduct that posed a risk to plaintiff's safety.

         Plaintiff received immediate medical treatment for his injuries at Caledonia. (Id. ¶ 26). He was later transferred to Halifax Regional Hospital. (Id.) Plaintiff also received treatment at the North Carolina Jayce Burn Center. (Id.)

         On May 24, 2014, plaintiff filed a claim for damages under the North Carolina Tort Claims Act. (Def. Ex. 1 (DE 28-1) at 1). In such claim, he alleged that defendant was negligent for failing to provide reasonably safe equipment. Id. Plaintiff's claim was dismissed with prejudice. (Def. Ex. 2 (DE 28-2) at 3). Specifically, it was determined that plaintiff must pursue a negligence claim under the Workers' Compensation Act instead. (Id. at 2).


         A. Motion for ...

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