In the early evening of August 4, 1994, Sheila Jackson attended a film festival
in the State Office Building at 163 West 125
th Street in Manhattan. She arrived at the theater which was on the second
floor at about 6 p.m., paid the entrance fee, and selected a seat. Since she
was a little early, claimant had time to go back toward the theater entrance
where a concession stand was situated. Informed at the stand that it did not
sell water, claimant was told there was a water fountain outside.
Jackson proceeded down the corridor: "I was walking towards the water
fountain, and as I got close to it, my feet went from under me and I fell to the
floor...I realized I was sitting in water."
At the time, the building was staffed with a mix of employees from the State
and private companies. Eric Miller, of the State's Office of General Services,
was the "supervising janitor" for the 125
th Street building with the responsibility to ensure that the maintenance
contract was fulfilled. The contract was with the Federation of the
Handicapped; and assigned therefrom were a cleaner, Sammy Lopez, and his
immediate supervisor at Fed Cap, James Perkins. The claimant put Miller, Lopez
and Perkins on the stand at trial. In addition to these three individuals (and
Jackson herself), claimant called Steven Garel, a security supervisor for Trent
Security who worked the 4 p.m. to midnight shift. The defendant did not present
The water claimant encountered was from work being done in a nearby office by
Roxanne's Plumbing Co.
According to Miller – no representative of
was called by either party -- the job "appeared to be a drainage of water
from the overhead piping system." He stated that the plumbers were working in
room 222, which was an office of the State Division for Youth (DFY) and next
door to Miller's own office. In fact, Garel described the work site, in his
incident report, as covering both offices
The plumbers were collecting the drained water in large buckets, or gondolas,
which were wheeled across a hallway to a landing-sized vestibule, a fire exit
stairwell that was open like a balcony. The water was then dumped on the
vestibule floor; its
drain was known to clog from time to time (cl exh 5). To reach the water
fountain, which was a few feet from the vestibule, the claimant walked past its
entrance, at which point she slipped and fell because water had seeped out onto
the floor of the hallway (cl exh 4, see circled initials "SG"; cl exh 7, p. 3 ).
Claimant's testimony that no wet-floor signs had been positioned was supported
by Miller ("No, I didn't see any signs, no"). Nor was any portion of the
hallway roped off. What warning there may have been was not visible from the
hallway -- apparently a sign was placed by the DFY office, but that room was
separated from the hall by a pair of doors. Jackson was wearing sneakers.
On cross-examination, defendant suggested that Jackson should have been
watching where she was placing her feet; such was not very persuasive: i)
claimant had already walked the length of the hallway without incident, or
seeing anything that would have alerted her to the danger, so it was quite
reasonable then, in her final steps to look to the water fountain (cl exh 3);
and ii) the vestibule door had been closed when Jackson fell, and without
natural light, it was difficult to discern water on the floor in a spot
described as a relatively dark corner with a reflection from the doors.
In order to prevail in her claim, Jackson must demonstrate that: (1) the
hallway floor was not reasonably safe; (2) the defendant had sufficient actual
or constructive notice thereof; and (3) the wet floor was a substantial factor
in causing claimant's injury (
On the third element, claimant's description of her accident,
, that it was caused by the wet floor, was uncontested by any witness
and supported by the exhibits (e.g.
, cl exh 7). Water seeping into a
widely used hallway is a patently dangerous condition. It is unnecessary to
determine whether water was tracked through the hallway or may have sloshed out
of the gondolas. A wet floor of a corridor, open to the public without warnings
or a safety precaution like absorbent mats, presented a foreseeable danger of
injury which could have been avoided with little expenditure of time or money.
Miller admitted as much:
Miller came on duty that evening at 5 p.m. for a shift ending at 1 a.m.
He testified that at 5:15 he became aware that the plumbers were dumping water
on the fire stair vestibule. Miller said that the plumbers had called him
because they wanted the DFY office mopped, and he discovered their use of the
vestibule, "suggesting" they use a slop sink elsewhere on the second floor to
dispose of the water. The custodial supervisor conceded that water would
collect there and run over into the second floor corridor: "we had observed
that there was a lot of water in that vestibule area." Perkins of Fed Cap
recounted, "I saw the young lady on the floor and water seeping from ...the
balcony door, from the wall all the way around to the garbage can" [past the
accident situs, cl exh 8].
While initially asserting he had no authority over the plumbers, Miller came to
acknowledge responsibility for ensuring that passage through the hallways be
kept safe. In any event, the state's responsibility is not one that can be
a governmental body, be it the state or a municipality, is under a continuing,
nondelegable duty to maintain its public premises, ways, and facilities in a
reasonably safe condition, and that liability will flow from injuries caused by
a breach of that duty.
But Miller never checked the condition in and around the vestibule. He did not
attempt to learn if the plumbers did stop dumping the water and, if so, when.
In any case, the area required mopping. With water spilling over into the
hallway, no sign or any other safeguard was utilized.
Moreover, Miller had to be aware there was an evening event on the
second floor; if not, as the State's most responsible person on the scene for
maintenance, he should have been. The film
festival would have added a heightened sensibility regarding the risks of large
quantities of water being trudged across the hallway. The plumbers' location
was close to one bathroom (cl exh 8), as well as the only drinking fountain on
that floor, both of which were highly likely to be used by the movie patrons.
Jackson fell less than an hour after Miller became aware of what the plumbers
were doing. The incident report has it as 6:08 p.m. (cl exh 7). In the
abstract not a long period, but it is, in view of the facts here, sufficient
time to place a sign, mop (Perkins testified he had a vacuum drier) and/or close
off the area.
At least three workers were on hand to perform one or more of these tasks
– Lopez, Perkins and Miller. PJI 2:91 (see footnote 2).
In sum, defendant was negligent and such was a substantial factor in causing
claimant's fall on August 4, 1994.
The defendant has the burden of proving whether claimant bears any share of
responsibility; it has failed to do so. Unpersuasive, as noted, was defendant's
cross-examination suggesting that Jackson was not looking where she was going.
Defendant also inquired of claimant if she was wearing glasses. The response
was in the negative, but nothing was elicited to suggest that she should have
been. Defendant also asked a question on lighting (the overhead hall lights
were on, but credible testimony was elicited on the shadowy corner) and whether
claimant had previously walked in that corridor (once before at a 1980's film
I find the defendant State of New York
liable for the slip and fall of Sheila Jackson on August 4, 1994 and any
injuries resulting therefrom. All motions not previously ruled upon are deemed
denied. The parties will be contacted to schedule a conference prior to the
damage phase of trial.
LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.