New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

SMITH v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2000-013-509, Claim No. 91948-A


Action brought by inmate who received an electric shock while working at steam table in mess hall. No liability found where evidence did not show that Defendant had actual or constructive notice of the defective condition.

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):

Claimant's attorney:
Defendant's attorney:
Attorney General of the State of New York
BY: PATRICIA M. BORDONARO, ESQ. Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
September , 2000

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Claimant, Calvin Smith, alleges that on May 7, 1993, while incarcerated at Auburn Correctional Facility (Auburn), he suffered an electric shock when he attempted to turn on a switch to activate a steam table in the facility's mess hall. By order of the Hon. Thomas P. McMahon, dated March 29, 1995, Claimant was permitted to file this claim in spite of the fact that he had not previously served and filed a timely notice of intention or claim with the Clerk of this Court and/or the Attorney General (
see, Court of Claims Act §10[6]).
Claimant provided the following testimony in support of his claim: He was employed as a food server at Auburn. On the day of this accident, he arrived in the area of the mess hall around 3:30 p.m. for the "late" meal shift. One of his responsibilities was to prepare two steam tables for use. These tables each had four wells into which he was supposed to pour water. The water would be electrically heated and would keep trays of food that were placed in the wells hot. On the day in question, Claimant noticed that the right steam table which in the past, he said, had not worked properly, did not have a metal plate covering the switch box. He also observed that there was some water in the box and around the wires.

Claimant testified that the switch box had been exposed in the past and that he had seen sparks flaring up from the wires in the box on two occasions before his accident. He said that he had brought this condition to the attention of correction officers Pidlypchak and Harvey and had told them that if the condition was not fixed, someone would get hurt. On more than one occasion, these tables and their electrical components had broken down and Claimant had observed prison maintenance workers trying to fix them.

He explained that on the day he was injured, he had filled the wells with water and flipped on the switch for the right table. He received a jolt of electricity which, he said, ran through his right hand and down his right side to his groin area, knocking him off his feet. He then fell to the floor and lost consciousness. He testified that the lights on his side of the mess hall also shorted out. He recalled being helped to his feet by other inmates in the mess area, but said he did not regain full consciousness until he was in the prison infirmary some time later. When he did regain full consciousness, his right hand was swollen and felt numb. Claimant attributes the shock he experienced and various injuries of which he now complains to the charge of electricity that surged through his body, and says the surge was caused by the Defendant's failure to properly maintain the steam table so as to prevent water from seeping into the junction box and onto the electrical wires.

Cross-examination revealed that Claimant was wearing state issued rubber soled boots on the day of the incident and that the floor on which he was standing was wet from water that he had spilled while he was in the process of filling the table wells. He also acknowledged that in the incident report and the inmate injury report that he signed (Exhibits 2 and 3), he had stated that he received the shock from the
left steam table, rather than the right one.
In an apparent effort to show that Defendant had prior notice of this condition, Claimant introduced a copy of the mess hall log from May 7th, which noted Claimant's accident at 5:20 p.m. and further stated that "The breaker tripped and was never reset. Should have maintenance check it out before it is reset." Claimant apparently believes that the breaker tripped sometime before his accident due to an earlier malfunction in the table. While it is certainly plausible that the steam table tripped the breaker some time before Claimant's accident, Claimant produced no evidence suggesting that this had actually occurred.

Defendant relied primarily upon the testimony of Correction Officer Pidlypchak. He testified that he saw Claimant setting up for the evening meal from his post between the north and south mess halls. He did not see the actual incident, however. At approximately 4:40 p.m, Claimant approached him and reported that he had suffered an electric shock when he flipped on the electrical switch on the steam table. Officer Pidlypchak observed burns on Claimant's right hand and knuckles. He went to look at the tables and noted that there was no discoloration on the surface of the tables of the type that a fire or burn would leave. The face plates covering the switch boxes were in place, as best as he could recall. It was apparent to him that Claimant had suffered a burn to his hand from some source, and he concluded that it was the result of an electrical shock. He said he completed an incident report using information supplied to him by Claimant (Exhibit 2) and then arranged to have Claimant treated. According to Officer Pidlypchak, all of the mess hall lights were on when he went to observe the table.

Officer Pidlypchak also believed that the circuit breaker referred to in the kitchen log tripped when Claimant received the shock and not at some earlier point in the day. He further stated that he had never received any complaints regarding the condition and working order of the steam tables. It did not appear to him that Claimant had suffered any other injury as a result of this shock. Nor did it appear to him that Claimant had been rendered unconscious or was in shock or mental distress as a consequence of the jolt and his alleged fall.

It is beyond question that the State has a duty to maintain its premises in a reasonably safe condition (
Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233; Palmisano v State of New York, 47 AD2d 692). It is equally well-settled that the State is not an insurer of its facilities and negligence cannot be inferred solely for the happening of an accident (Mochen v State of New York, 57 AD2d 719, 720). To prevail on the issue of liability, Claimant must establish the existence of a dangerous condition, that Defendant had actual or constructive notice of the condition, that Defendant failed to correct the dangerous condition within a reasonable period of time, and that the injury complained of was the result of the alleged dangerous condition (Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836).
There is no question that Claimant suffered an electrical shock in this case. Nonetheless, it does not follow that the accident which occurred was caused by the negligence of the State. Claimant has not convinced me that the State had actual knowledge or constructive notice of a dangerous condition prior to his accident.

With regard to constructive notice, I find Officer Pidlypchak's testimony to be more persuasive than Claimant's and conclude that the switch plate was not missing from the steam table at the time of Claimant's accident. Therefore, I am not persuaded that any defect that may have caused the table to shock Claimant was sufficiently visible and apparent enough to provide Defendant with constructive notice (
Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836, supra).
Nor am I persuaded that Defendant had actual knowledge of the defective condition. Claimant's testimony that he brought earlier problems with the table to the attention of correction officers was denied by Officer Pidlypchak and was not persuasive. His testimony that the table was constantly in need of repair, was not convincing either. Claimant would obviously like me to believe that the kitchen log entry showed that Defendant had actual notice. However, the record is devoid of any evidence suggesting that the circuit breaker incident referred to in the log happened
before Claimant's accident. To the contrary, the testimony of Officer Pidlypchak, and my own reading of the entry, persuades me that the log is referring to a tripping of a circuit breaker which was triggered by Claimant's accident.
Finally, Claimant's claim would fail even if I were to accept his account of what transpired. His account indicates that he knew about and could readily observe the dangerous condition (
Millson v Arnot Realty Corp., 266 AD2d 918).
The State's motion to dismiss on the basis that Claimant failed to prove a
prima facie case is now granted. All motions not previously ruled upon are hereby denied.

September , 2000
Rochester, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims