Inmate work injury claim dismissed, no notice, reasonable use of senses.
|Claimant short name:||BROWN|
|Footnote (claimant name) :|
|Defendant(s):||THE STATE OF NEW YORK|
|Footnote (defendant name) :|
|Claimant's attorney:||BRYANT BROWN
|Defendant's attorney:||HON. BARBARA D. UNDERWOOD
Attorney General for the State of New York
By: Matthew Feinberg, Assistant Attorney General
|Third-party defendant's attorney:|
|Signature date:||July 30, 2018|
|See also (multicaptioned case)|
Claimant alleges that on July 14, 2013, during his incarceration at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, he tripped and fell during the course of his work assignment as a mess hall cook in the mess hall kitchen. According to claimant, he stepped into a round floor drain measuring six inches in diameter and the drain cover went down approximately ½ inch to 1 inch as he stepped on it while holding a sheet pan full of chicken that he had just retrieved from the oven. Claimant dropped the pan and was burned on his left forearm by chicken grease. Claimant referred to the floor drain as a "hole"(1) and contends that it posed a hazard and an unsafe workplace. Defendant maintains that the floor drain did not pose a foreseeably dangerous condition.
Claimant testified and presented the testimony of Henry Matthews, a witness to claimant's fall. Claimant's exhibits 1 through 5 were received in evidence. Defendant presented the testimony of Sergeant Thomas Knight.
Claimant testified that he was incarcerated from 2004 through 2015 and that during that time he was a mess hall cook. In July 2013, claimant prepared breakfast and lunch meals approximately five days a week in the mess hall kitchen. On Sundays, claimant and the kitchen crew prepared a lunch meal for "Chicken Sunday." On Sunday July 14, 2013, claimant and a crew of four to five inmates and a number of civilian employees were preparing to serve the lunch meal for 1600 to 1700 inmates. There was a festival on that date and the kitchen area was overcrowded resulting in the tables used for the hot food trays from the oven being moved closer to the area near the floor drain. Claimant testified that he walked approximately three feet from the oven carrying a hot, 12-inch sheet pan containing chicken to be placed on one of the tables. As claimant turned to put the sheet pan onto the table, his left foot slipped into the round floor drain which measured approximately six inches in diameter. Claimant was wearing protective gloves. However, he was burned with chicken grease on the area of his left forearm that was not protected by his work glove. Claimant exhibited his left forearm to the Court revealing discoloration in the affected area up to his elbow. Claimant went to the facility emergency room and experienced continued pain through the next couple of weeks of treatment. Claimant missed one or two weeks of work after the incident.
Claimant maintained that the floor drain cover was not properly installed and that it went in approximately ½ inch to 1 inch as he stepped on it with the front part of his work boot. Claimant testified that the food service administrators and New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) personnel were well aware of the floor drain and yet there were no warnings or barricades in place to warn of any possible danger that the floor drain posed. Claimant did not specify whether DOCCS personnel's awareness of the floor drain referred to an awareness of its location or an awareness of the potential danger it posed due to an alleged defect.
Claimant first noticed the floor drain approximately a week or two prior to his accident; however in his grievance he referred to the floor drain as a "hole" that had been in the floor for months without being fixed (Ex. 3, p 3). On cross-examination, claimant explained that he did not know of the hole in the floor or the floor drain for months; rather the statement in his grievance was based upon what other inmates had told him.
Henry Matthews testified that on July 14, 2013, he was incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility and worked in the mess hall as a "runner" carrying food trays. He described the kitchen on that date as very crowded and busy with approximately 40 mess hall workers. Matthews described the floor drain as approximately six inches in diameter. He testified that he saw claimant step onto the floor drain and fall while carrying a tray of chicken. Aside from referring to the floor drain as a "hole," Matthews did not testify as to the condition of the floor drain at the time of claimant's fall. According to Matthews, DOCCS employees were aware of the hole in the floor due to the floor drain cover coming off and that work orders were issued prior to claimant's accident, but nothing had been done. Matthews further testified that he complained about the hole in the floor to Food Service Administrator Bullock and she told him that it would be addressed.
At the conclusion of claimant's case, defendant moved to dismiss the claim for claimant's failure to establish a prima facie case. Claimant opposed the motion. The Court reserved decision on the motion.
Defendant then presented the testimony of Sergeant Thomas Knight who has been employed by DOCCS since 1981. In 1996, Knight was promoted to sergeant. In July 2013, he was a supervisor in the kitchen area at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. He testified that he supervised claimant and had no issues with claimant, his work, or his character. Knight was not present at the time of claimant's accident, but was informed of the incident by Sergeant Briggs.
Knight testified that the kitchen was remodeled in August 2011. Upon completion of the remodeling, the area, including the floor drain, was inspected by the office of general service and facility personnel. According to Knight, if any defect was present at the time of inspection, it would have been addressed.
Knight was not aware of any verbal or written reports of inmate injuries or complaints regarding the floor drain in the mess hall kitchen prior to claimant's accident. He was also not aware of any work orders regarding the floor drain prior to claimant's accident. Claimant's grievance was shown to Knight at trial and he confirmed that a work order was submitted after claimant's accident (Ex. 3).
At the conclusion of the trial, defendant renewed its motion to dismiss. Claimant opposed the motion. The Court reserved decision on the motion.
It is well established that "[t]he State - just as any other party . . . is responsible, in the operation and management of its schools, hospitals and other institutions, only for hazards reasonably to be foreseen, only for risks reasonably to be perceived" (Flaherty v State of New York, 296 NY 342, 346  [citations omitted]) and with respect to the safety of persons on its property, the duty of the State is one of reasonable care under the circumstances (see Miller v State of New York, 62 NY2d 506, 513 ; Preston v State of New York, 59 NY2d 997, 998 ; Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233, 241 ). The State correctional facilities owe a duty to provide inmates engaged in work assignments with reasonably safe work conditions (see Manganaro v State of New York, 24 AD3d 1003 [3d Dept 2005]). The State, however, is not an insurer of the safety of its premises and negligence cannot be inferred solely from the happening of an accident (see Killeen v State of New York, 66 NY2d 850, 851 ; Condon v State of New York, 193 AD2d 874 [3d Dept 1993]). The inmate workers are required to use ordinary care when engaging in work programs (Manganaro, 24 AD3d 1003).
In order to prevail on his claim, claimant must show: the existence of a foreseeably dangerous condition; that the State created the condition or had either actual or constructive notice of the condition; that the State failed to remedy the condition within a reasonable time; that such condition was a proximate cause of claimant's injury; and that claimant sustained damages (see Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836 ; Ligon v Waldbaum, Inc., 234 AD2d 347 [2d Dept 1996]; Mercer v City of NewYork, 223 AD2d 688 [2d Dept 1996], affd 88 NY2d 955 ).
The Court finds that claimant failed to establish by a preponderance of the credible evidence that defendant either created or had actual or constructive notice of a foreseeably dangerous condition attributable to the location of the floor drain in the mess hall kitchen or a defect in the floor drain and that defendant failed to remedy such condition within a reasonable time. Therefore, there is no basis in the record for finding that defendant was negligent. Indeed, claimant testified that as he stepped on the floor drain, the cover went in approximately ½ inch to 1 inch. The record is devoid of any evidence of prior accidents and claimant failed to demonstrate how this occurrence was or should have been reasonably foreseeable to defendant.
Notably, the mess hall kitchen was remodeled in 2011 approximately two years prior to claimant's accident and upon completion of the remodeling project, the kitchen, along with the floor drain, was inspected in August of 2011. There was no evidence presented indicating that the floor drain or its location posed a foreseeably dangerous condition as designed and constructed. To the extent that claimant argues that there was a design defect with regard to the floor drain or its location, claimant failed to present any expert testimony and there was insufficient other evidence to meet claimant's burden in that regard. In addition, claimant had a duty to employ a reasonable use of his senses to observe that which was readily observable, namely the floor drain which he had knowledge of at least two weeks prior to his fall (see Stasiak v Sears, Roebuck & Co., 281 AD2d 533, 534 [2d Dept 2001]).
While Matthews testified that the supervisors and DOCCS personnel were well aware of what he referred to as the hole in the floor, his testimony was unclear as to whether he was referring to their awareness of the location of the floor drain or the condition of the floor drain due to the cover coming off. Matthews testimony, that he complained about the floor drain to a DOCCS employee and that work orders were issued prior to the incident, was not supported by any documentary evidence and contrasted with Sergeant Knight's testimony that he was unaware of any verbal or written complaints, inmate injuries or work orders issued regarding the floor drain prior to claimant's accident. Knight maintained that the only work order issued was after claimant's accident and claimant failed to produce any work orders issued before his accident.
In sum, upon consideration of all the evidence, including listening to the witnesses testify and observing their demeanor as they did so, the Court finds that the evidence presented was insufficient to establish that defendant created or had either actual or constructive notice of a foreseeably dangerous condition attributable to the floor drain in the mess hall kitchen and that defendant failed to remedy such condition within a reasonable time (see Pennie v McGillivary, 15 AD3d 639 [2d Dept 2005]).
Accordingly, defendant's motion to dismiss, made at the conclusion of trial, is now GRANTED and the claim is DISMISSED.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED DISMISSING CLAIM NO. 123396.
July 30, 2018
White Plains, New York
Judge of the Court of Claims
1. All quotations are to the trial audio recording unless otherwise indicated.