New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

KWARTLER v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2000-010-030, Claim No. 91739


Case Information

Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Terry Jane Ruderman
Claimant's attorney:
Defendant's attorney:
Attorney General for the State of New YorkBy: Dewey Lee, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
June 28, 2000
White Plains

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

Claimant, who was employed as a correction counselor at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility ("Bedford"), seeks damages for the injuries she allegedly sustained on February 13, 1995 when she sat on her office chair, which she had used for six years, and it collapsed.
The trial of this claim was bifurcated and this Decision pertains solely to the issue of liability.
Claimant testified[1]
that her office chair was upholstered with a metal base on casters. She had used this chair for six years. On February 8, 1995, claimant was fired and she returned to her office on February 13, 1995 to collect her belongings. Claimant's physical condition necessitated that she ambulate by use of a motorized scooter. On the evening of February 13, 1995, claimant was in her office talking to a co-worker, John Graham. As she sat down in her chair, the chair "just simply collapsed, compressed down to the floor" (Ex. 13, p. 45). Due to the trauma of her fall, claimant had to go home quickly and take some medication. Following Bedford procedure, before leaving the facility, she dropped her office keys in the key room. Claimant explained that her office was locked when she was not present and to gain entry to her office, claimant had to pass through security and retrieve the office key from a correction officer in the key room. The key was returned to the key room at the end of the day. Lather that evening, claimant telephoned Elaine Lord, the Superintendent of Bedford, to report the accident.
John Graham, also a correction counselor at Bedford, testified that he was in claimant's office at the time of her accident. He observed that, as claimant sat down on her chair, the chair compressed to the floor. Claimant got up and Graham returned to his office. A few minutes later, claimant left her office in her motorized scooter. After claimant exited, the door to her office was closed. The next day, at Superintendent Lord's request, Graham filed a memorandum reporting the accident (Ex. A). The report was consistent with his testimony.

Elaine Lord testified that, on the night of the accident, she received a telephone call from claimant. Lord telephoned the watch commander at the facility and directed that photographs be taken of claimant's office and that nothing be disturbed.

Lord testified that she considered claimant a friend and had visited her office daily. On many occasions, Lord had observed claimant sitting on her chair, leaning back with her feet resting on an open drawer. Lord warned claimant to exercise caution in this activity. Claimant responded that it was comfortable to have her feet elevated because it took stress off her back.

On the evening of the accident, Correction Officer Cynthia Morgan was dispatched to the scene to take photographs.[2]
Morgan observed that the chair was in "two pieces" and "the bolts that secure the seat of the chair to the base did not appear to be in the area" (Ex. 1).
David Brenner, the Fire Safety Officer at Bedford, investigated the accident. Brenner discussed the matter with Lord and, according to Brenner, Lord never stated that claimant had misused the chair. Brenner took photographs of claimant's office and her chair (Exs. 5A-D). He examined the chair and observed that it had four bolt holes on the bottom and that at least two bolts were missing. He found one bolt on the floor. According to the report Brenner prepared, only "one bolt out of the four was in place. All the bolt holes were checked and the threads are not stripped" (Ex. 3).

Brenner testified that the New York State Department of Correctional Services does not routinely inspect chairs. He estimated that Bedford had approximately 1000 chairs and that an annual inspection of every chair would be a major undertaking. Rather, repairs were made in response to reported problems and there had been no reported complaints regarding claimant's chair.

The examination before trial of William J. Vitek, a Maintenance Supervisor 3 at Bedford in 1995, was received into evidence. His duties included supervising the maintenance department, the plumbers, carpenters, electricians and mechanics. His duties did not include inspecting equipment and he did not believe that anyone was charged with the responsibility of inspecting equipment.

Vitek accompanied Brenner on his inspection of claimant's office. Vitek reported,
"we found the chair to have one bolt in the base of the frame, with another bolt loose on the floor. There were two bolts missing from the base" (Ex. 2). Vitek checked the threads on the base; all appeared operational. He testified that this type of chair usually arrived at the facility in pieces and was assembled by the maintenance staff.
Jack Krafchick, a mechanical engineer provided expert testimony on behalf of claimant. Krafchick has had professional experience in designing machinery and the use of fasteners (i.e., nuts and bolts) in assembly. Krafchick opined that, because there was only one bolt remaining on claimant's chair, the base had swivelled, causing the chair to flip and give the impression that it had collapsed. Krafchick maintained that the assembly of claimant's chair should have had a compression washer to ensure that the bolts holding the base to the chair remained secure. In his view, the absence of compression washers resulted in a loosening of the bolts, causing the base to swivel and the chair to pitch. Krafchick's inspection of the bolt thread holes in the chair revealed that there was no evidence that the left front bolt had ever been installed in the chair.

Krafchick also testified that there was an engraving on the metal base advising that the moving parts needed lubrication once a year. Krafchick stated that, to perform such lubrication, the chair needed to be turned upside down. He further stated that, had the manufacturers instructions been followed, the missing bolts would have been obvious. Krafchick conceded that his professional experience was with machinery and not chairs, but that this chair had specific instructions regarding yearly maintenance. Thus, Krafchick opined that the manufacturer's recommendations should have been incorporated into a maintenance schedule.

Defendant rested without presenting any witnesses.

It is well established that the State, just as any other party, is responsible in the operation and management of its schools, hospitals, and other institutions (
see, Flaherty v State of New York, 296 NY 342, 346). With respect to the safety of persons on its property, the State's duty is one of reasonable care under the circumstances (see, Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233, 241). 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).
In the instant case, defendant failed to present any evidence disputing Krafchick's testimony regarding the need for compression washers and the evidence established that: two of the four bolts intended to secure the chair were missing; the left front bolt had never been installed; and one loosened bolt was found on the floor. Although claimant was alone in her office briefly after Graham had left, it would be pure speculation for the Court to conclude that claimant removed any bolts from the scene. Nor does the Court find that the evidence warrants the conclusion that claimant purposely caused her fall by removing any bolts. It is noted that claimant, who could not testify at trial due to an unrelated illness, needed a scoter to ambulate and there is no evidence to suggest that she would intentionally create an increased risk to her already compromised physical condition, even in light of her recent termination of employment.

It is further noted that defendant failed to present any evidence disputing that the chair required annual lubrication. Had defendant performed such routine maintenance, which necessitated turning the chair upside down,
the missing and loosened bolts would have been obvious.
Accordingly, the Court finds that defendant either, negligently assembled the chair in the first instance, or negligently failed to perform any routine maintenance over the course of six years. Such negligence resulted in the loosening and eventual absence of the bolts securing claimant's chair and resulted in the collapse of claimant's chair (
see, Dawson v National Amusements, 259 AD2d 329 [defendant held liable on theory of res ipsa loquitur for collapsed movie theater seat where Court found it is highly probable that a non-negligent inspection would have revealed any problem with seat caused by prior patron]; Finocchio v Crest Hollow Club at Woodbury, 184 AD2d 491 [plaintiff's temporary possession of chair does not negate inference that its sudden collapse, under normal usage, was most likely caused by defendant's negligence]; Kowalski v Loblaws, Inc., 61 AD2d 340 [plaintiff established prima facie case where store display chair collapsed and accident would not have ordinarily occurred in absence of defendant's negligence]).
Defendant argues that claimant used her chair in an unsafe manner by rocking back in it and putting her feet up on an open drawer. Even assuming that claimant's conduct constituted a misuse, it was not established that such conduct, in any way, caused or contributed to her accident (
see, Raffa v Central School Dist. No. 1, 16 AD2d 855).
Thus, the Court finds defendant 100 percent liable for claimant's injuries and will set the matter down for a trial on the issue of damages as soon as practicable.


June 28, 2000
White Plains , New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] At the time of trial, claimant was hospitalized for an illness unrelated to this incident. Her EBT testimony, in lieu of her in court testimony, was received into evidence without objection (Exs. 11, 13).
[2] The photographs were not available at trial.