New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
HELD v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2019-044-006, Claim No. 125845

Synopsis

After trial, former inmate's claim for injuries allegedly incurred when he slipped in prison laundry room is dismissed.

Case information

UID: 2019-044-006
Claimant(s): MICHAEL HELD
Claimant short name: HELD
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 125845
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: CATHERINE C. SCHAEWE
Claimant's attorney: FRANZBLAU DRATCH, P.C.
BY: Brian M. Dratch, Esq., of counsel
Defendant's attorney: HON. LETITIA JAMES, ATTORNEY GENERAL
BY: Bonnie Gail Levy, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: April 25, 2019
City: Binghamton
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

Claimant filed this claim to recover for personal injuries allegedly suffered when he slipped and fell while working in the A-1 Dorm laundry room while in the custody of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) at Butler Correctional Facility (Butler). Trial of the matter was bifurcated and held in the Syracuse District on April 18, 2019. This decision addresses only the issue of liability.

Claimant testified that at the time of his accident, he had been a morning laundry porter for the A-1 Dorm for approximately two weeks. On the day of his accident, September 22, 2012(1) (a Saturday), he switched shifts with the evening porter.

Claimant described the laundry room, which contained washers and dryers. He said that there was a drain in the doorway which was used to access the drain system to clean (snake) it out if necessary, and there was also an overflow drain inside the room for overflow for the washing machines. He said that during the time he was a morning laundry porter, there was always a mop head sitting on top of the access drain in the doorway, but that it was always dry.

Claimant stated that on the date of his accident, the last thing he recalls is entering the laundry room. In contrast, however, he also stated that he recalls that the floor of the room was wet when he regained consciousness, and also recalls being "dragged out of the room."(2) Claimant said that he hit his head and lower back when he fell. Claimant asserted that he has had memory issues since this accident.

After his fall, claimant requested copies of maintenance documents for the drains in the A-1 laundry room. He was given copies of four maintenance work order requests. The first was dated January 10, 2011,(3) and states that the drain cap was loose, having been forced up by water and bubbles. Claimant stated that he was certain that this work order was for the access drain in the doorway, because the access drain had a solid cap, whereas the overflow drain had holes in the cap. The second maintenance request was dated July 11, 2011,(4) and states that the "[d]rain in [the A-1] Laundry [room] overflows every time [the] washer [d]rains." This request was made by Correction Officer (CO) Acresti. Claimant said he "knows" this request is for maintenance of the access drain. The third maintenance request was dated September 24, 2011,(5) and states that there is a "[l]oose [d]rain cap in [the A-1] laundry room floor. [L]arge amounts of water seeping out, floor flooding." The fourth maintenance request(6) was made on September 22, 2012, the date of claimant's accident, again by CO Acresti. It states "when washer [d]rains suds and water leaks [sic] out of [d]rain on to [sic] floor." Claimant again insisted that this request pertained to the access drain in the doorway, rather than to the overflow drain in the middle of the laundry room floor.

The Inmate Injury Report(7) regarding claimant's accident, prepared by CO Acresti, states that the cause of claimant's injury was that claimant "slipped on wet mop on floor in [l]aundry [r]oom. Hit his head on washer and lower back on concrete platform." The Inmate's Statement provides: "was checking cloths [sic] in laundry room. Was walking out of [r]oom slipped on floor. Hit head on washer and back on platform. Water was from Drain on Floor." Claimant said that the report's statement that claimant was coming out of the laundry room was not accurate. He acknowledged that the notice of claim in this action also stated that he was exiting the room. Claimant testified that was his belief at the time he prepared the notice of claim, but that the last thing he actually remembers is entering the laundry room.

On cross-examination, claimant said that he had not heard of the laundry room floor being wet, nor had he seen it wet on any occasion prior to his accident. He did not know of anyone who had complained about the floor being wet. He also knew that there was a drain underneath the mop head, but he never picked the mop head up or moved it.

Claimant rested his case at the close of his testimony. Defendant moved to dismiss on the basis that claimant had failed to prove a cause of action for negligence, in that there was no notice of any allegedly dangerous condition, and moreover because claimant's own negligence was the cause of his accident, rather than any alleged breach of a duty by defendant. Claimant's attorney countered that a prima facie case had been established in that defendant knew that the drain could overflow, that a mop head had been placed on it to soak up the water, that there had been previous maintenance requests to resolve the situation, and that drains are not supposed to have water coming out of them. The Court reserved decision on the motion.

CO Acresti testified on defendant's behalf. He remembered that there was a drain inside the room in front of the washing machines, but did not recall that there was an access drain in the doorway, and did not recall that there was ever a mop head placed in that location. He denied that he ever ordered a mop head placed over that drain to absorb water.

Acresti said he "vaguely" recalled claimant's accident. He was at his station in the A-1 dorm when claimant came up to him and told him that he had fallen in the laundry room. He did not recall whether claimant said he was entering or exiting the laundry room. He filled out the incident report based upon what claimant told him, "pretty much verbatim." He said that when he entered the laundry room, he saw "suds and a little water" around the drain in front of the washers. He filled out a maintenance request form (Claimant's Exhibit 4), and noted that he had previously filled out a similar maintenance request form for the same drain (Claimant's Exhibit 2) on July 11, 2011, approximately 14 months prior to claimant's accident. Although that request states in part: "[d]rain in Laundry [room] overflows every time washer [d]rains," he explained that meant it overflowed every time the washer drained on that particular day. He said that if the drain had overflowed for more than one day he would have written a maintenance request each day it did so. He did not recall water coming out of the drains at any other time, nor was he aware of anyone else having been injured due to water/suds on the floor.

Steven Greving also testified. He was a general mechanic at Butler in charge of upkeep at the facility for approximately two years, until it closed. He described the laundry rooms at Butler (all of which were set up identically), noting that there was a floor drain located in front of the three washers to drain any water that leaked from the machines. There was also an access drain in the doorway with a cap, which was used to clean out the system if necessary. He noted that the entire system was gravity-fed rather than being under pressure. He said that if the drainage system did overflow, it would usually come up out of the drain in front of the washers. He said that inmates adding extra soap to the washing machine loads would cause the system to overflow. He said that 4 requests to fix the drain in a 1 year time period was not excessive, because the porters did laundry in that laundry room for 30 inmates on a daily basis.

Greving was assigned the work order to fix the drain on the day of claimant's accident. He said that the process of fixing a drain would be to first identify the problem (water coming out of the drain) and then to verify that the problem complained of was actually occurring. In this instance, there was no notation that he had performed any work (in contrast to the other maintenance orders, which noted how the problems were fixed). He said that in such cases, no notation meant that it could not be verified that a problem actually existed.

Defendant rested its case at the close of Greving's testimony. Counsel for defendant again moved to dismiss the claim on the basis that claimant had not established the existence of a prima facie case by a preponderance of the evidence. The Court reserved decision on the motion.

The State, as a landowner, owes a duty to maintain its property in a reasonably safe condition under the prevailing circumstances, but "it is not obligated to insure against every injury which may occur" (Smith v State of New York, 260 AD2d 819, 820 [3d Dept 1999]; see Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233, 240-241 [1976]; Matter of Boettcher v State of New York, 256 AD2d 882 [3d Dept 1998]; Condon v State of New York, 193 AD2d 874, 875 [3d Dept 1993]). It is well-settled that liability may be imposed upon the State if it can be shown that it had actual or constructive notice of the hazardous condition that caused the fall. Further, when an inmate fails to use ordinary care, he must take responsibility for his own negligence (see Carter v State of New York, 194 AD2d 967 [3d Dept 1993]).

To prevail on his claim, claimant must prove by a preponderance of the credible evidence that a dangerous condition existed, that the State either created said dangerous condition or had actual or constructive notice thereof and failed to alleviate the condition within a reasonable time, that the dangerous condition was a proximate cause of the accident, and that claimant sustained damages (see Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836 [1986]; Mercer v City of New York, 223 AD2d 688 [2d Dept 1996], affd 88 NY2d 955 [1996]).

A finder of fact must consider numerous factors in assessing whether any particular situation constitutes a dangerous condition, including the injured party's familiarity with the area, whether any prior accidents have occurred and the nature of the area surrounding the defect (see Trincere v County of Suffolk, 90 NY2d 976 [1997]). In other words, whether the condition is dangerous " 'depends on the peculiar facts and circumstances of each case' and is generally a question of fact" (id. at 977, quoting Guerrieri v Summa, 193 AD2d 647 [2d Dept 1993]).

Upon a consideration of all the evidence, as well as listening to the witnesses testify and observing their demeanor, the Court reaches the following conclusions. First, claimant did not present as a credible witness. His testimony was inconsistent and somewhat belligerent. He vacillated between insisting he had no memory after entering the laundry room, and stating that he recalled being in water on the floor after he fell and being dragged out of the room, vomiting. On the other hand, Acresti's and Greving's respective testimony was generally consistent and credible.

In any event, the Court finds that claimant has failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant had any knowledge of a dangerous condition - that condition presumably being water and suds on the laundry room floor. Three prior incidents over a year and a half, the last one being one year prior to claimant's accident, do not constitute notice of a dangerous condition under these circumstances. The drain was repaired and no further incidents are alleged to have taken place between September 24, 2011 and September 22, 2012, the date of the accident.

Claimant has failed to meet his burden of proof in this matter and Claim No. 125845 is hereby dismissed. Any and all motions on which the Court may have previously reserved or which were not previously determined are hereby denied.

Let judgment be entered accordingly.

April 25, 2019

Binghamton, New York

CATHERINE C. SCHAEWE

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. The Court notes that the amended claim incorrectly lists the date of the accident as September 22, 2013.

2. All quotes herein are taken from the Court's notes of the proceedings, unless otherwise indicated.

3. Claimant's Exhibit 1.

4. Claimant's Exhibit 2.

5. Claimant's Exhibit 3.

6. Claimant's Exhibit 4.

7. Claimant's Exhibit 5.