New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

Van Alsytne v. New York, #2000-011-100, Claim No. 98754


Synopsis


Defendant held liable in this products liability claim for injuries suffered by claimant when he fell from a chair that was manufactured by defendant under its Corcraft brand. Damages of $150,000 awarded.

Case Information

UID:
2000-011-100
Claimant(s):
Jeffrey A. Van Alstyne
Claimant short name:
Van Alsytne
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
The State of New York
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
98754
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
Thomas J. McNamara
Claimant's attorney:
Catone & Brower, Esqs.(Paul J.Catone, Esq. of counsel)
Defendant's attorney:
Hon. Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General(Michael W. Friedman, Esq., Assistant Attorney General)
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
March 13, 2000
City:
Saratoga Springs
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision

Claimant has alleged causes of action for strict products liability and breach of implied warranty arising from an incident in which he fell and injured his back while seated in an office chair manufactured by Defendant. The incident occurred on September 23, 1997 while claimant was working as a criminal investigator for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department. At the time of the accident, claimant was seated at the desk of another investigator and was putting a phone together. The Sheriff's Department had just moved into a new facility two days earlier and according to claimant, all the furniture was new. Claimant testified that he was seated in the middle of the chair toward the front and was leaning forward when the chair collapsed and he fell onto his knees. His chest was pinned against the desk with the chair pressing on his back. When he got up he saw that the chair had broken.

Under New York law, it is well settled that a manufacturer or regular seller of a product may be held liable for placing into the stream of commerce a defective product which causes injury (
Gebo v Black Clawson Co., 92 NY2d 387, 392). A product may be defective by reason of a manufacturing flaw, an improper design, or a failure to provide adequate warnings for the product's use (Liriano v Hobart Corp., 92 NY2d 232). The manufacturer of a defective product engaged in its normal course of business may be held strictly liable for injuries caused by a product, regardless of privity, foreseeability or the exercise of due care (see, Voss v Black & Decker Mfg. Co., 59 NY2d 102). In order to establish liability based upon this theory, the plaintiff is required to prove (1) that the chair in question was not fit to be used as intended, (2) that the defect existed as of the time that it left the defendant's hands, (3) that the plaintiff used the chair in question as it was intended to be used, (4) that the plaintiff would not have been able to discover any defect in the chair through the exercise of ordinary care, and (5) that the defect was a substantial factor in causing the accident (Winckel v Atlantic Rentals & Sales, 159 AD2d 124, 126).
The chair on which claimant was seated was an office chair assembled and sold by Corcraft, an industry operated by the State Department of Correctional Services. Major components of the chair included a chrome frame, cushions, both made by Corcraft, and an aluminum silicate star base made by a company in Wisconsin. The chair was sold by Corcraft and delivered directly to the Sheriff's Department on March 3, 1997. Following the accident, it was determined that one of the legs of the star base which supported the chair had fractured. The broken star base was examined by Dr. Martin E. Glicksman, a professor of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute. Dr. Glicksman testified that the base was a conventional die cast star leg made with an aluminum silicate die cast alloy. Upon examining a portion of the fractured area with an electron microscope, he identified a cluster of aluminum oxide crystals at the point where the fracture initiated. According to Dr. Glicksman, this inclusion of aluminum oxide occurred during the casting process and appeared in the worst possible spot. He further testified that the presence of the aluminum oxide, or dross, constituted a defect in the manufacturing process and caused the fracture in the star base.

Claimant has established that defendant produced a chair with a defective base and that the defect was a substantial factor in bringing about the accident. In addition, claimant has shown that at the time of the accident he was using the chair for the purpose and in the manner normally intended and that by the exercise of reasonable care, he would neither have discovered the defect nor perceived its danger; and that by the exercise of reasonable care on his part would otherwise not have averted the accident (see,
Codling v Paglia, 32 NY2d 330). Accordingly, defendant is liable for any injuries proximately caused by the accident.
Claimant testified that he began to feel pain in his back and knee immediately after he fell, though he finished his shift that day. He returned to work the next day but left early to see a doctor. The doctor took x-rays, prescribed medication and told claimant to come back in one week. According to claimant, he lived on his couch for that week and experienced pain in his legs from his waist to his toes such that he had to crawl on his hands and knees to get to the bathroom. Upon his return to the doctor, he was given a shot and sent for an MRI which showed a herniated disc at L5-S1. He was again given medication and sent for physical therapy. He attended physical therapy from October to February when he first returned to work but on light duty. Claimant testified that the physical therapy helped but he was still experiencing pain in his back and legs. In May 1998, claimant was again out of work but returned to full time duty in July 1998. According to claimant, physical activity causes pain in his legs and back and as a result he is no longer on the dive team or SWAT team at work and his participation in sports outside of work has been curtailed. He maintains that he experiences pain in his back and legs every day.

In February 1998, he was referred to Dr. Charles J. Bertuch an orthopaedic surgeon. During the first visit, Dr. Bertuch reviewed the earlier MRI which he testified showed a disc herniation at L5-S1 and though the disc was impinging on the dural sac, the nerve roots were not compromised. Claimant, however, had positive straight leg raise on the right side which led Dr. Bertuch to believe that the nerve root was being tethered in the foramina where it exits from the spinal column. Dr. Bertuch explained that the MRI had been taken with the patient lying down with no bending stress or vertical loading and that the nerve root could be compromised when claimant was standing or bending but not when lying down. Claimant also complained of pain in his lower right back at that time. During visits on February 12, 1998 and April 2, 1998, Dr. Bertuch noted mild pain, minimal to mild spasm and some limitation of motion. On May 12, 1998 Dr. Bertuch found positive straight leg raise at 80 degrees on the right. He also noted some weakness in the extensor hallucis longus and tibialis anterior which, respectively, raise the great toe and elevate the ankle. Dr. Bertuch referred to the area where these muscles are located as the L5 dermatome and testified that they are connected to the nerve that exits the spinal column between the L5 and S1 vertebral bodies. According to Dr. Bertuch, weakness in those muscles is evidence of a neurological deficit indicating pressure on the nerve that goes to that area. Dr. Bertuch felt that claimant was not able to work at that time and he requested authorization for a myelogram and CT myelogram. Those exams were eventually performed and while the myelogram was normal the CT myelogram confirmed the disc herniation at L5-S1 with a slight indentation of the ventral aspect of the dural sac.

Claimant was examined again on July 1, 1998 and at that time some pain was noted in the lower back and there was slight spasm but normal sensation over the L5 dermatome. An examination on August 8, 1998 showed spasm on the right side but no radiation of pain. When Dr. Bertuch again saw Claimant on January 14, 1999, he noted some pain in the back with some pain radiating down the right leg. Dr. Bertuch also found that the right calf was 1/4" smaller than the left calf which he viewed as an objective finding of nerve compromise. On July 7, 1999, Dr. Bertuch found minimal pain and spasm. He also indicated that during that examination he found the right calf to be equal in size to the left. Though he testified that this was an improvement, he also testified that because claimant was right side dominant the right calf should be bigger than the left and therefore, the right calf still showed atrophy.

The report from the MRI taken in September 1997 also indicated disc desiccation at the L5-S1 level and Dr. Bertuch testified that this condition, which is the result of a loss of water from the disc, was the result of a prior injury which occurred more than a year before the incident involved here. However, he indicated that a desiccated disc would not necessarily produce symptoms and he testified that the disc herniation was causally related to the accident on September 23, 1997. He also testified that the condition will eventually cause arthritis, that the pain claimant experiences is permanent and that he is a candidate for spinal fusion surgery in the future.

Based upon the testimony of Claimant and Dr. Bertuch, claimant is awarded $50,000 for past pain and suffering and $100,000 for future pain and suffering for a total award of $150,000. Interest on the award is to run from the date of this decision.

LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.


March 13, 2000
Saratoga Springs, New York

HON. THOMAS J. MCNAMARA
Judge of the Court of Claims