New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
WILLIAMS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2018-029-085, Claim No. 122470

Synopsis

The pro se claim for negligence sought damages for burns sustained at Fishkill Correctional Facility while claimant, an inmate, was handling a rice steamer. After trial, the court found defendant not liable and dismissed the claim.

Case information

UID: 2018-029-085
Claimant(s): CARLTON WILLIAMS
Claimant short name: WILLIAMS
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 122470
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: STEPHEN J. MIGNANO
Claimant's attorney: CARLTON WILLIAMS, PRO SE
Defendant's attorney: BARBARA D. UNDERWOOD, ATTORNEY GENERAL
By: Jeane L. Strickland Smith, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: September 11, 2018
City: White Plains
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

A trial of the pro se claim for negligence was held on August 1, 2018. The claim alleges that the State breached its duty to provide claimant with reasonably safe equipment and proper training for handling a steamer resulting in his sustaining second degree burns on March 13, 2011 at Fishkill Correctional Facility ("Fishkill"). Claimant testified on his own behalf and the court admitted two exhibits. Defendant did not present witnesses or introduce exhibits.

Mr. Williams testified that he was assigned to work as a cook at Fishkill. On the day he was injured, he was preparing rice. He was wearing the gloves provided to him, a pair of thin, blue and yellow cleaning gloves only passing the wrists, and not the black gloves that go to the elbow. When he pulled the rice pan out of the steamer, steaming hot water on top of the pan rolled down his arm and he sustained second degree burns. He was taken for medical treatment, had his arm wrapped and was sent back to the kitchen. He had previously worn longer gloves. He had repeatedly requested longer gloves but was told they were unavailable. He asserted that a number of complaints had been lodged about the lack of proper gloves. Claimant's supervisors, Dave Sims and Matthew Connolly, did not supply the gloves, stating they were not in stock or unavailable. Claimant was not given any training or orientation regarding kitchen-worker safety measures and precautions.

On cross-examination, claimant testified that he grabbed the rice pan with both hands, the water rolled off the glove and onto his left forearm. Once the steamer is shut off, steam still comes out, so he could not see the steaming water on the top pan. He had worked as a cook in the kitchen for four years. He used the rice steamer daily but did not sustain burns on any other occasion. While he had used the longer gloves in the past, he had also used the shorter gloves for the prior two and a half years without incident. It was his practice to wear gloves regardless of what he was making. He was blind in his left eye at the time of the incident, and for the entire four years he had worked in the kitchen. He requested a different work assignment because of his blindness, but was denied. He was sent back to work in the kitchen after the injury. After the incident, he put in a request to be removed from the food service but this request was also refused.

Photographs of claimant were admitted collectively as claimant's Exh. 1, and his ambulatory health record was admitted as claimant's Exh. 2.

Claimant provided the following responses to questions posed by the court: he had been provided the longer gloves in the past, when there was a different administrator; when he requested the longer gloves, he was told they were on order; and the other inmates working in the kitchen also wore the shorter gloves.

Negligence requires a reasonably foreseeable danger of injury to another, conduct that is unreasonable in proportion to that danger and proof of actual injury (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247, 252 [2002]). The State is not an insurer of inmate safety (id.). "[T]he State, acting through its correctional authorities, ha[s] only a common-law duty to provide the claimant with reasonably safe equipment as well as sufficient warnings and instructions for the safe operation of the work and equipment" (Letterese v State of New York, 33 AD3d 593, 593 [2d Dept 2006]; see Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877, 878 [3d Dept 1996]). "However, where an inmate fails to use ordinary care and pursues a dangerous course of conduct, he or she is required to take some responsibility for his or her own negligence" (Martinez at 878 [finding the claimant's injuries were caused by his reckless touching of a live wire on the "hot" side of an electrical box]; see Letterese at 593-594 [inmate's negligence in use of stepladder was sole proximate cause of injury]).

The court found claimant to be credible and straightforward in his testimony, which is not in dispute. He operated the rice steamer throughout his four years of working as a cook in the prison kitchen. Although he had been provided with the longer gloves for part of that period, he wore the shorter gloves for the final two and a half years. Other than the serious burn he sustained on this one occasion, he managed to operate the rice steamer for the entire four years without mishap.(1) Although long gloves would likely afford better protection to inmates assigned to work in the prison kitchen, the record does not contain prima facie evidence that the shorter gloves were not "reasonably safe" (Letterese at 593).

Claimant did request transfers to a different work detail because of his partial blindness, and if defendant had approved his transfer before this incident, he would not have been burned.(2) But inmate work assignments are made as a matter of administrative discretion, for which the State has qualified immunity. "DOCCS is [. . .] vested with the discretion whether and where to assign an inmate to work as part of his or her program [and] '[t]here is no statutory or constitutional guarantee to employment for prison inmates' " (Fair v State of New York, UID No. 2013-048-532 [Ct Cl, Bruening, J., Dec. 23, 2013], quoting Matter of Lee v Coughlin, 142 AD2d 802, 803 [3d Dept 1988] [citations omitted]). Moreover, "the underlying claim, regardless of how it has been characterized, 'would require review of an administrative agency's determination which the Court of Claims has no subject matter jurisdiction to entertain' " (Matter of Salahuddin v Connell, 53 AD3d 898, 899 [3d Dept 2008] [monetary relief incidental where claim required court to review denial of grievance], quoting City of New York v State of New York, 46 AD3d 1168, 1169 [3d Dept 2007], lv denied 10 NY3d 705 [2008]).

The court finds defendant not liable for negligence and dismisses Claim No. 122470. The Clerk of the Court shall enter judgment accordingly.

September 11, 2018

White Plains, New York

STEPHEN J. MIGNANO

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. The claim alleged that other inmates had sustained injuries in the kitchen and filed grievances asserting their injuries were caused by the lack of longer gloves, but claimant did not present evidence at the trial to support this allegation.

2. The claim does not allege that claimant's partial blindness contributed to his unfortunate accident. Besides, claimant testified that he could not see the water on top of the pan because steam obscured his vision, not because he was blind in his left eye, and he had managed to operate the steamer safely for several years prior to the accident.