New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

SHULER v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2000-013-510, Claim No. 94323-A


Action brought by inmate who was injured when cable clamp failed on weight lifting machine. No liability found where State regularly inspected the machines and did not have actual or constructive notice before the accident

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: PATRICK B. SARDINO, ESQ. Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
September 5, 2000

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


This claim arises from an alleged exercise machine malfunction at the Cape Vincent Correctional Facility on June 16, 1995. Claimant, who was once incarcerated at that facility, maintains that an s-shaped metal hook or clamp failed on a weight lifting machine he was using, causing a metal pull down bar to detach from the machine and strike him in the neck and head.

A trial limited to the issue of liability took place on April 11, 2000 at the Court of Claims in Syracuse. Claimant presented his own testimony and the testimony of a former inmate named Mr. Steven Langhorne. Defendant called Mr. Gary Mattraw, who was a recreation program leader at Cape Vincent, both at the time of the trial and at the time of the alleged incident.

The weight lifting machine was operated from a sitting position. Photographs of it (Exhibit 2) reveal that the pull down bar was tubular, somewhat thicker than the handlebar on a bicycle, and bent slightly at each end where the handgrips were located. When the machine was fully assembled for use, the pull down bar was suspended horizontally above the place where the user would sit by means of an s-shaped hook, which was attached to the center of the pull down bar. The s-shaped hook, in turn, was attached to a wire cable. The cable ran over the top of a metal frame, through two pulleys and down to a bracket onto which one could load free weights. The user would lift the weights by reaching up, grasping the pull bar and bringing it down toward his chest. After completing a downward thrust, the user would then ease up on the bar and let it return to its resting position.

In his trial testimony, Claimant described the events leading up to his June 16th accident. He said that he entered the gym, and obtained the pull down bar from the recreation aide. He attached the bar to the machine and loaded the weights he would need to perform his exercises onto the bracket. He then sat on the bench and began using the machine. The accident occurred after he had used the machine without incident for an estimated five to ten minutes. While he was pulling the bar toward him, the s-shaped clamp separated from the cable. With nothing to hold the bar in place, and with the resistance created by the weights no longer a factor, the bar crashed down on Claimant's head and neck.

Claimant acknowledged that he did not check the machine before using it, but did look at the hooks and clamps and noted that they appeared to be working properly. He had previously used the machine on a number of occasions, however, and was aware that it had a variety of problems. The cable would jump off one of the pulleys. The bar was not level and therefore dragged from one side to the other. The padding on the machine was old and, in Claimant's view, inadequate. However, he had never had a problem prior to his accident with the s-clamp becoming detached prior to his accident and had never seen or known of anyone else having such a problem with that machine. He further acknowledged that he had not notified anyone employed by Defendant of any problems with the machine in question prior to the accident.

Mr. Steven Langhorne, who testified on behalf of Claimant, said he recalled seeing the bar become detached from the machine and hit Claimant in the head. He also claimed that on some date prior to the accident the cable on the machine was badly frayed and ready to snap. Mr. Langhorne's testimony was not particularly credible. Among other things, I have great doubts that he saw what he described. Claimant's testimony did not place Mr. Langhorne in the room at the time of the accident and Mr. Langhorne testified himself that he was released from Cape Vincent Correctional Facility in May 1995, several weeks
before the incident. I have placed no weight upon Mr. Langhorne's testimony.
Defendant's witness, Recreation Program Leader Mattraw, testified that Defendant inspects its gym equipment, including the machine in question, on a daily basis before the weight room opens. In the course of each inspection, Defendant looks for frayed wires, detached hooks or broken parts and other dangerous conditions. According to Mr. Mattraw, an inspection that preceded Claimant's injury did not reveal any dangerous conditions or defects with the weight lifting machine. Mr. Mattraw did recall incidents where the machine's pulley mechanism had malfunctioned, but could not recall any incidents prior to Claimant's accident that were similar to the one that injured Claimant. Nor could he recall receiving any complaints about the weight lifting machine before the accident or any injury that anyone had received while using the machine. On cross-examination, he acknowledged that he had no specific recollection of the incident or the day that Claimant was injured.

As an owner of the building and grounds, Defendant has a duty to act as a reasonable person would to maintain its premises in a reasonably safe condition (
Preston v State of New York, 59 NY2d 997; Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233). In connection with its operation of a gymnasium, it must use the same level of care to assure that its equipment is reasonably safe and free from hazards (85 NY Jur 2d, Premises Liability, §87; see also, Gregaydis v Watervliet Civic Chest, 14 AD2d 623). These obligations extend to Defendant's correctional facilities (see, Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910).
Defendant is not, however, an insurer, and negligence may not be inferred solely from the happening of an accident (
Tripoli v State of New York, 72 AD2d 823; Mochen v State of New York, 57 AD2d 719). Rather, a claimant must prove that Defendant breached a duty of care owned to the claimant and that the breach of duty proximately caused the claimant's injury (Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233, supra, at 240-241).
The evidence presented does not persuade me that Defendant breached a duty of care. There was no evidence that Defendant had actual knowledge of the defective condition of the s-clamp. Nor was there any evidence that the defect in the s-clamp was visible or apparent or that it had existed for a sufficient period of time for Defendant to discover it and remedy it. To the contrary, the fact that Claimant used the machine without event for five to ten minutes before the clamp detached suggests that there was no apparent problem with the s-clamp until the moment it failed.

Claimant argues that Defendant had notice because there were other problems that he had had with the equipment in the past. However, the evidence did not establish that those problems were related to the s-clamp failure at issue here.

Claimant's case also fails to the extent that it is founded upon alleged inadequacies in Defendant's inspection and maintenance of the equipment. Mr. Mattraw was a credible witness. Although he did not specifically remember Claimant's accident, I am convinced, based upon his testimony, that Defendant had a daily inspection routine in place, that it followed that routine on the day in question before Claimant began using the machine, and that the inspection did not reveal that the s-clamp was defective or likely to fail. Claimant has failed, therefore, to show negligence in Defendant's inspection or maintenance of the weight lifting machine (
compare, Burkart v Health and Tennis Corp. of America, 730 SW2d 367, 370 [Tex. Ct. App. 1987]).
For the reasons stated above, Claim No. 94323-A is dismissed. All motions not heretofore ruled upon are denied.


September 5, 2000
Rochester, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims