New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
DAVIS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2018-032-014, Claim No. 125370

Synopsis

Inmate claimant was injured when a table he was directed to sit on for the removal of his leg irons collapsed. Defendant was found 100% liable.

Case information

UID: 2018-032-014
Claimant(s): JESSIE DAVIS, Jr.
Claimant short name: DAVIS
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 125370
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: JUDITH A. HARD
Claimant's attorney: Franzblau Dratch, P.C.
By: Brian Dratch, Esq.
Defendant's attorney: Hon. Barbara D. Underwood, NYS Attorney General
By: Thomas Trace, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: November 8, 2018
City: Albany
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

FACTS

Claimant commenced the instant action on December 10, 2014, alleging injuries sustained when the table he was directed to sit on collapsed. The accident occurred on November 6, 2012 as claimant was being processed following his transfer from Marcy Correctional Facility (Marcy) to Mid-State Correctional Facility (Mid-State) (Verified Claim 2). Defendant only raised one affirmative defense in its Answer, that of claimant's alleged culpable conduct which should reduce the amount of any award of damages (Verified Answer 4, 5). A bifurcated trial on the issue of liability was held on April 24, 2018 in Utica, New York.

Claimant was the sole witness who testified in support of his claim. On November 6, 2012, claimant was being transferred by bus from Marcy to Mid-State (T: 12).(1) His hands were handcuffed and his feet were shackled (T: 13). A chain went from his handcuffs to the leg irons with another chain around his waist (T: 13). When he exited the bus at Mid-State he was directed to the draft room where incoming inmates are processed (T: 14). Exhibit 1 depicts the draft area "pens" that the inmates are directed to, depending on their final destination (T: 17). The inmates lined up and some were told to sit on a table for the removal of their leg irons (T: 18-19). Claimant did not notice anything wrong with the table (T: 34). There were seven inmates in front of claimant and when his time for the removal of his leg irons arrived, he told the correction officer that he was too heavy for the table (T: 19). Despite his protest, he was forced to sit on the table (T: 20). He testified that he weighed 250 pounds at that time (T: 19). The table broke on one end and his body and the table hit the ground (T: 21). He claimed that he blacked out from the pain (T: 23). Claimant had knee surgery approximately 40 days prior to the fall and maintained that the fall off the table "ripped [his knee] all apart" (T: 24). Following his fall, claimant's handcuffs, shackles and leg irons were removed while he was on the floor and he was brought to a room where other inmates were located (T: 25).

Exhibit A, an inmate injury report, dated November 6, 2012, lists the time of injury as 1:30 p.m. that day. The accident is described in claimant's own words: "I came in through draft. I was handcuffed and shackled. I sat on the table and it collapsed. As soon as it did, I felt shooting pain all the way down left, to my left foot. I was ordered to sit on on (sic) table by the CO to be uncuffed" (Exhibit A). Nurse Shelly Noti (Noti), who signed the report, wrote: "No physical/visible injuries" (Exhibit A), and testified that his range of motion and ability to walk were fine, otherwise she would have noted any problems (T: 106). He was directed to follow up with sick call and was given an analgesic balm (Exhibit A). Three days later, on November 9, 2012, claimant went to the infirmary complaining of pain in his left leg (Exhibit A, p. 5). The progress note indicates that claimant informed the nurse that a table collapsed while he was sitting on it while shackled (Exhibit A, p. 5). It also notes that claimant's prior knee surgery took place on August 29, 2012. He was examined again on November 29, 2012. On that day, he complained of lower back pain and pain on the top of both feet. He had pain and swelling in his left knee. It was also noted that he had meniscus surgery in August 2012, that he fell in draft, and that he was doing heavy work in the mess hall (Exhibit A, p. 3). On December 4, 2012, claimant was seen again in the infirmary. Although claimant complained of pain on that date, the progress note indicates that no tenderness or swelling was observed, and claimant exhibited a full range of motion. He was told to do strengthening exercises to his back and left knee, and to wear a knee brace when working (Exhibit A, p. 3). His next two visits to the infirmary were on December 14, 2012 and December 28, 2012, when he complained of pain in his left knee (Exhibit A, p. 2). He last visited the infirmary on January 2, 2013. Claimant was paroled on or about January 14, 2013.

Upon cross-examination, claimant testified that he underwent left knee surgery in 2012, and he had a prior back injury from a car accident in 2006. He also remembered that he had filed a prior claim in 2003 for a back injury from a double bunk collapsing on him (Exhibits B, C). At the conclusion of claimant's case, defendant moved for "judgment as a matter of law on the issue of there not being any notice" upon which the Court reserved (T: 51-52).

Defendant presented three witnesses: retired Correction Officer Gavin Meyer (Meyer), Correction Sergeant Bruce Banker (Banker), and former Mid-State nurse, Noti.

Meyer testified that he was the Hub Transportation Officer on November 6, 2012. He drove a bus, picked up inmates at other facilities, drove them to Mid-State and processed them (T: 55). Prior to November 6, 2012, inmates had used tables for leg irons removal without problems (T: 55). Exhibit 1 depicts two tables located in the holding pen area at Mid-State (T: 56). The table that collapsed is the table depicted at the right side of the top picture in Exhibit 1 (T: 56). Correction staff processing the arriving inmates would utilize the tables when removing the inmates' leg irons and waist chains by setting the leg irons and waist chains on the tables (T: 57). Upon cross-examination, Meyer testified that they ordinarily use the bench for the removal of leg irons (T: 61), and the removal of claimant's leg irons while he was sitting on the table was an "oversight", or perhaps indicated a problem with their removal (T: 62). According to Meyer, it is impossible to remove the leg irons when an inmate is standing because the key openings are facing downward (T: 66).

When claimant sat on a table during his processing, the right leg of the table collapsed and claimant slid off the table onto the floor (T: 58). He did not complain of pain after the fall, and Meyer testified that claimant "didn't seem to be in any distress" (T: 59).

Banker, who was the Hub Transportation Sergeant on November 6, 2012, also testified for defendant. His role was to identify the arriving inmates who were either being transferred to another prison or staying at Mid-State (T: 73). On the date of claimant's fall, Banker sent claimant to Meyer to have his leg irons removed after Banker identified him. As he continued identifying inmates, he saw a sliding motion out of the corner of his eye (T: 75). As he looked over toward the direction of the sliding motion, Meyer was already helping claimant up from the floor (T: 75). Banker went over to claimant as Meyer was helping claimant stand and asked claimant if he was okay (T: 75). Claimant responded that he was fine, and Banker did not believe that claimant needed immediate medical attention (T: 75, 77).

Upon cross-examination, Banker testified that all officers remove the leg irons either when the inmate is sitting on the bench or while the inmates are standing (T: 79). However, if an inmate needs to have his shackles cut off, they use the tables. Banker testified that if he were removing an inmate's leg irons, he would not have the inmate sit on the table (T: 84). He did not believe that an Unusual Incident Report should have been completed regarding the collapse of the table (T:87). Claimant was heading to the infirmary for intake, so Banker called there and informed them what happened and that claimant complained of no injuries while in draft (T: 93).

Noti, a registered nurse, was working the evening shift in the Mid-State medical department on November 6, 2012. She testified that she completed Exhibit A, an Inmate Injury Form, regarding claimant's visit to the infirmary on November 6, 2012. She acknowledged that she wrote claimant's exact words on the form as to the cause of the injury. She did a limited appraisal of his skin and observed no bruising, swelling or redness. His range of motion was fine and she did not note any problem with his walking (T: 106). Noti testified that "[t]here was no bruising, no redness, no swelling, no excoriation" (T: 106). She concluded that there were no visible signs of injury, and gave him analgesic balm to treat muscle tenderness (T: 111-112). Noti further explained that Dr. Ramineni, the head of Mid-State's medical department, examined claimant on January 2, 2013 (T: 112). Dr. Ramineni noted that, on January 2, 2013, claimant exhibited "[n]o pain, tenderness," and that he had "a full range of motion" (Exhibit A; T: 113-114). Claimant exhibited "minimal tenderness medially" and "one-plus pitting edema" in the left leg (Exhibit A; T: 114). Noti explained that edema is a fluid accumulation that occurs when someone has a heart condition (T: 114).

DISCUSSION

"When the State acts in a proprietary capacity as a landlord, it is subject to the same principles of tort law as is a private landlord" (Miller v State of New York, 62 NY2d 506 [1984]). It is well established under the common law that the State has the duty to maintain its facilities in a reasonably safe condition, including its correctional facilities (Preston v State of New York, 59 NY2d 997 [1983]; see Heliodore v State of New York, 305 AD2d 708 [3d Dept. 2003]; Bowers v State of New York, 241 AD2d 760 [3d Dept. 1997]). "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 inmates" (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247 [2002]). However, the State is not an insurer to those who enter upon its premises and negligence cannot be inferred from the happening of an accident (see McMullen v State of New York, 199 AD2d 603 [3d Dept. 1993]; Tripoli v State of New York, 72 AD2d 823 [3d Dept. 1979]). The State's duty to protect inmates is limited to the risks of harm that are reasonably foreseeable (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247 [2002]). The Court notes that "[w]hen faced with a decision of whether to obey an order and risk injury or be subjected to disciplinary measures, an inmate may not be faulted for his or her decision to obey an order that results in injury (Eimers v State of New York, UID No. 2013-015-562 [Ct Cl, Collins, J., Oct. 28, 2013]), citing Bernard v State of New York, 34 AD3d 1065 [3d Dept. 2006]; Lowe v State of New York, 194 AD2d 898 [3d Dept. 1993]).

To establish a prima facie case of negligence, claimant's proof must show, by a preponderance of the credible evidence, 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; and (4) claimant sustained damages (Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836 [1986]).

In light of the foregoing principles, the Court finds that defendant had a duty to protect claimant, and that said duty was breached when the correction staff at Mid-State directed claimant to sit on a table for the removal of his leg irons. The testimony received at trial established that claimant was directed to utilize the table for a purpose outside of its intended use, and created the dangerous condition that allegedly caused claimant's injuries. The use of a table for holding the full body weight of an inmate, as opposed to a chair or bench, is a dangerous condition, and the Court finds that it is reasonably foreseeable that a table may collapse if a person sits on it.(2) The danger in using the table for such a purpose is "apparent to any reasonably prudent person" (Eimers v State of New York, UID No. 2013-015-562 [Ct Cl, Collins, J., Oct. 28, 2013]). Correction Officer Meyer admitted that directing claimant to sit on the table, as opposed to the bench, was an "oversight" (T: 65), and Correction Sergeant Banker admitted that he would not have directed inmates to sit on the table for the removal of leg irons (T: 84). The testimony of both Meyer and Banker established that defendant created the dangerous condition that caused claimant to fall. Moreover, claimant protested that he was too heavy to sit on the table (T: 19). The Court finds that it was not unreasonable for claimant to sit on the table as directed, as he would have risked subjecting himself to possible disciplinary measures if he refused (Bernard v State of New York, 34 AD3d at 1068).

Therefore, upon a review of all the evidence, including the observation of all witnesses and an assessment of their demeanor, the Court finds that defendant breached its duty of care and is 100% responsible for claimant's injuries. However, claimant must prove at a subsequent trial on damages, that the injuries he allegedly sustained in falling off the collapsed table were proximately caused by that fall (Santana v State of New York, 91 AD3d 937, 938-939 [2d Dept. 2012]; Rooney v State of New York, UID No. 2017-041-504 [Ct Cl, Milano, J., May 24, 2017]). All motions that were not addressed herein are denied. The Court shall schedule a trial on damages as soon as practicable.

Let interlocutory judgment be entered accordingly.

November 8, 2018

Albany, New York

JUDITH A. HARD

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. References to the trial transcript are indicated here as (T: ).

2. Defendant argues that the leg on the table bent and that it did not collapse even though the table hit the floor (Defendant's Post-Trial Brief 4; T: 89). The Court finds that where the leg of a table bends and the table hits the floor, such event constitutes a "collapse" of the table.