New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
JOHN DRAPER v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2018-029-009, Claim No. 126197

Synopsis

The claim filed pro se sought damages for injuries he sustained when a plastic chair he was sitting in collapsed at Coxsackie Correctional Facility. After a video trial on November 30, 2017, the court found defendant not liable for negligence. Claimant failed to present prima facie evidence of a dangerous condition, notice and proximate cause.

Case information

UID: 2018-029-009
Claimant(s): JOHN DRAPER
Claimant short name: JOHN DRAPER
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 126197
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: STEPHEN J. MIGNANO
Claimant's attorney: JOHN DRAPER, PRO SE
Defendant's attorney: ERIC T. SCHNEIDERMAN, ATTORNEY GENERAL
By: Joan Matalavage, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: January 29, 2018
City: White Plains
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

A video trial of this pro se claim was held on November 30, 2017, with claimant and Assistant Attorney General ("AAG") Joan Matalavage appearing at Coxsackie Correctional Facility, and the court sitting in White Plains, New York. The claim alleges negligence arising from the failure to maintain the recreational area and equipment in a safe manner, resulting in claimant being injured when a plastic chair he was sitting on broke beneath him.

Claimant represented himself at trial and testified on his own behalf. Defendant did not call any witnesses. The following claimant's exhibits were admitted at trial: grievance-related documents (Exh. 1); requests for consultation and report from December 29, 2014, until April 1, 2015 (Exh. 2); and ambulatory health records from April 14, 2014, until July 20, 2015 (Exh. 3). Defendant did not introduce any exhibits.

Claimant testified that on August 16, 2014, he had been seated in the recreation room watching the facility movie for about 15 minutes when the plastic chair he was sitting on exploded underneath him and several of the legs were broken. He fell backwards onto his neck, back and shoulder, causing him substantial pain. He removed a label from the chair, alleging the chair was of poor quality.

Copies of claimant's grievance-related documents (Exh. 1) show that: Claimant filed a grievance seeking to have the chairs replaced with better quality chairs, which was denied; He was interviewed by Sergeant Montgomery and told that the chairs came from an approved vendor under contract; Claimant was examined at the time he fell; and X-rays were done at a later date.

Copies of several "request[s] and report of consultation" (Exh. 2) show that claimant was complaining of back pain and knee pain from his fall. He was provided physical therapy and over-the-counter pain medication. Copies of claimant's ambulatory health records through July 20, 2015 (Exh. 3) show that claimant complained of back, neck and knee pain after the incident.

Claimant asked the court to consider a copy of a label that he claimed to have removed from the collapsed chair. He agreed with AAG Matalavage's statement that he was questioning defendant's decision to use the chair for inmates because the label on it warned against use by anyone weighing over 250 pounds, and at the time of the incident he weighed 314 pounds. Claimant stated that he attempted through the Freedom of Information Act to obtain copies of the contracts for the chairs, he was told that none were available as the chairs were not purchased through contract. Defendant objected to this testimony as hearsay, and objected to admission of the label as a business record, based on the hearsay rule and claimant's failure to lay a proper foundation. The court reserved on the admissibility of the label, and allowed both parties to submit brief post-trial written arguments on the issue.(1)

After claimant rested his case, defendant moved to dismiss the claim based on claimant's failure to present prima facie evidence that the State had actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition. The court reserved on the motion and defendant rested without offering any evidence or witnesses.

As a landowner, the State has a duty to act as a reasonable person would to maintain its premises in a reasonably safe condition (see Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233 [1976]). This duty applies to the State's responsibility for its correctional facilities (see Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910 [3d Dept 1992]), and in that setting extends beyond the State's role as a property owner. "Having assumed physical custody of inmates, who cannot protect and defend themselves in the same way as those at liberty can, the State owes a duty of care to safeguard [them]" (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247, 252-253 [2002]). That duty does not, however, render the State an insurer of inmate safety. Like other duties in tort, the scope of the State's duty to protect inmates is limited to risks of harm that are reasonably foreseeable (id.; see Villar v Howard, 28 NY3d 74, 80 [2016] [finding facility need not foresee specific harm]).

Thus, to establish a prima facie case of negligence, claimant's proof must show that (1) a dangerous condition existed; (2) the defendant either created the dangerous condition, or had actual or constructive notice and failed to alleviate the condition within a reasonable time; and (3) the condition was a proximate cause of the accident (see Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836, 837 [1986]).

The determination as to whether a condition is dangerous, requiring the landowner to then take remedial measures to correct the condition, depends upon the context or circumstances of each case. In this particular matter, claimant has testified that a plastic chair in the prison recreation room collapsed underneath him after he had been sitting in it for about 15 minutes. There is no evidence that the chair here was defective or damaged in any way.

Rather, claimant's theory is that defendant knew or should have known that the chairs in the recreation room were not supposed to be used by prisoners weighing more than 250 pounds. It is unclear whether claimant is arguing that defendant was negligent for purchasing the chair, or because Coxsackie staff let claimant sit in it, but both arguments fail.

In support, claimant relies on the label that he claims to have removed from the chair after the incident, which contains the following words in fine print: "Caution: [. . .]. Do not use [. . .] for persons weighing over 250 pounds." Claimant was articulate and well prepared at trial, but the court has trouble believing that claimant had the presence of mind to notice, read, then remove the label from the collapsed chair while he lay on the ground injured and in pain. The label also contains inadmissible hearsay. Claimant is submitting it to prove the truth of the matter asserted, at least by implication, that injury could result if the chair were to be used by someone weighing more than 250 pounds. Claimant did not present evidence to authenticate the label as a business record.(2)

Even if the label were admissible, there was no evidence regarding when, by whom, or the process by which the chair it was affixed to was purchased, which in any event would concern general purchasing practices and privileged discretionary decisions by employees of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, and the correctional facilities under its jurisdiction. Additionally, claimant did not present prima facie evidence that his weight was the substantial cause of the chair collapse, or that Coxsackie personnel (1) knew or should have known that claimant weighed 314 pounds, and (2) could have reasonably foreseen that the chair was likely to break if he sat on it.

As a way around these evidentiary and legal deficiencies, claimant argued at trial that defendant is liable under the legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which is "a rule of evidence that permits an inference of negligence to be drawn solely from the happening of an accident where the plaintiff can show that: (1) the event is of the kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone's negligence; (2) the instrumentality that caused the injury is within the defendant's exclusive control; and (3) the injury is not the result of any voluntary action by the plaintiff" (Correa v Matsias, 153 AD3d 1312, [2d Dept 2017]; see Morejon v Rais Constr. Co., 7 NY3d 203, 209 [2006]). A plastic chair in a prison recreation room is not "within the exclusive control of the defendant" (id.).

Claimant has failed to present a prima facie case that defendant either created or had actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition. Defendant moved to dismiss the claim at the close of claimant's case and then rested the defense case without presenting evidence. The motion to dismiss is hereby granted, and Claim No. 126197 is dismissed. The Clerk of the Court shall enter judgment accordingly.

January 29, 2018

White Plains, New York

STEPHEN J. MIGNANO

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. The court received and reviewed both post-trial submissions regarding admissibility of the label. The court did not review claimant's additional submission captioned "Notice of Motion to Reopen Claim," which improperly seeks admission of additional evidence post-trial.

2. The court disagrees with defendant's post-trial argument that the copy of the label is inadmissible because it violates the Best Evidence Rule. Claimant did not explain his failure to submit the original label, but he did provide a proper foundation to establish the reliability and accuracy of the copy by submitting a notarized affidavit that the copy is an accurate portrayal of the original (see Schozer v William Penn Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 84 NY2d 639, 643-644 [1994] [explaining the Best Evidence Rule]).