New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

REYES v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2000-013-514, Claim No. 94628


Claimant, an inmate, stood on his desk and braced one of his legs on his cell gate while trying to hang a clothesline. He lost his footing and fell. He sued for the injuries he suffered in the fall. Judge Patti held that Defendant could not be held liable because there was no proof it breached a duty of care.

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: CAROL A. COCCHIOLA, ESQ. Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
November 3, 2000

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


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 Correctional Facility.

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 York, 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.


November 3, 2000
Rochester, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims