On July 7, 1996, Claimant slipped and fell as he was attempting to install a
clothesline in his cell in A-Block at the Southport Correctional Facility
(Southport). In this timely filed claim, he alleges that Defendant is legally
responsible for his injuries because a correction officer directed him to
install the line. A trial took place on August 11, 2000, at the Elmira
Claimant testified that just before his accident, he had climbed up on his desk
to hang the clothesline. He intended to attach one end of the line to a vent
located at the front of the cell. To get closer to the vent, he stepped off his
desk with one leg and braced his foot against the gate. As he reached up to
attach the line, his foot slipped off the cell gate and he fell. He testified
that he sustained a 1½-inch superficial laceration on his forearm and
pulled some muscles in his back.
The laceration reportedly prevented him from writing letters to his family for
a few days and caused him to suffer short-term psychological trauma. His
ambulatory health records show that he was treated for an injury (or injuries)
to his forearm beginning on July 7, 1996. The records describe the injury(ies)
as a ¼-inch laceration or a 1½-inch superficial scratch. Claimant
testified that this scratch or laceration left a noticeable scar. By the time
of trial, the wound was barely visible.
Claimant's ambulatory health records also show that he had back pain at the
time of the incident. He made complaints of a pulled back muscle on July 8,
1996, and told his health care provider on July 24, 1996 that his pains stemmed
from a fall "about a week ago." He continued to ask for and receive medication
for back pain at least until September 10. At trial, he claimed that he still
suffers from chronic back pain as a result of the incident, but there were
reasons to doubt his story. An August 5, 1996 medical note indicates that he
had had a full packet of Motrin in his cell since July 24, but had only taken a
few tablets. Claimant also volunteered that he had been diagnosed with a
narrowing of the disks in his back about two years before trial. He also
injured his back twice after the incident: in 1997 in an altercation with
correction officers; and, in 1998, during a cell extraction.
Defendant's witness, Correction Officer Richard Augustine, worked on A-Block on
the day of the incident, but had no recollection of it. According to Officer
Augustine, Southport lets inmates install state-issued clotheslines in their
cells. The purpose is to provide extra space to store clothing. Inmates have
no reason to have clotheslines in their cells to dry clothing, since the
facility laundry will wash and dry clothes for them. Few inmates clean their
own clothes in their cells -- for good reason. The only basin large enough to
clean clothes is the toilet.
Inmates obtain clotheslines by asking a correction officer for a piece of
twine. Officer Augustine said that he would never order an inmate to install a
clothesline. He explained that correction officers tried to discourage
clotheslines because they could also be used as trip lines, as weapons, or for
other improper purposes.
Inmates were supposed to install the clotheslines by suspending them from vents
located in the front and back of the cell. According to Officer Augustine, it
was the inmates' responsibility to determine how to reach the vents. Claimant
did not have to straddle the space between his desk and the cell gate to hang
the line. He could have reached the vent in the front of his cell by standing
on the stool next to his desk and could have reached the vent at the back of his
cell by standing on his bed. On cross-examination, Officer Augustine admitted
that he had never watched anyone put up a clothesline and was not entirely sure
that an inmate could reach the front vent with a stool.
David Goodwin, R.N. treated Claimant in his cell on July 7, 1996 following the
fall. He had no recollection of the incident apart from what appeared in
Claimant's medical records. His records reflect that he treated a ¼-inch
forearm laceration with a sterile pad. He estimated that his visit lasted about
two minutes and said, based upon his nursing note, that Claimant voiced no
complaint during the visit about the condition of his back.
It is beyond question that the State has a duty to maintain its premises,
including its correctional facilities, in a reasonably safe condition (
Basso v Miller
, 40 NY2d 233; Preston v State of New York
, 59 NY2d
997). It also has a duty to use reasonable care to safeguard the health and
well-being of inmates in its custody (see, Gordon v City of New
, 70 NY2d 839; Cauley v State of New York
, 224 AD2d 381). But
the State is not an insurer, and negligence cannot be inferred solely from the
happening of an accident (Mochen v State of New York
, 57 AD2d 719, 720).
Claimant did not demonstrate that the State breached a duty of care.
Southport permitted, but did not require, inmates to install clotheslines in
their cells. I was not persuaded that anyone ordered or directed Claimant to
hang a clothesline, and I find that his decision to hang a line was voluntary.
The proof also established that Defendant did not tell inmates how to install
clotheslines in their cells. If Claimant wanted to hang a clothesline, it was
up to him to decide how to get to the vents. The danger presented by the method
Claimant chose in this case was open and obvious. It was incumbent upon him to
recognize the danger and to find another way to hang the line safely. If he
ultimately determined that there was no safe way for him to hang the line, then
it was his obligation to try to get help or to abandon the project altogether.
Accordingly, I find for Defendant and dismiss the claim.
All motions not heretofore ruled upon are denied.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.