New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

NEWTON v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2000-016-107, Claim No. 93618


Pro se claim alleging that inmate was injured while using a home-made wrench was dismissed

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):

Alan C. Marin
Claimant's attorney:
Mark Newton
Defendant's attorney:
Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General
By: Michael Zeytoonian, AAG Mary Kavaney, AAG
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
December 18, 2000
New York

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

Claimant Mark Newton alleges that defendant was negligent in "forcing [him] to use a home-made wrench [in the metal fabrication shop at Fishkill Correctional Facility] . . . which . . . [broke] while claimant was using same . . . thereby causing claimant to sustain a serious laceration upon his [right wrist]." The claim was tried at the facility on two dates, and was finally completed on August 3, 2000. Newton testified on his own behalf and called correction officer Vern Davis. Defendant called the workshop instructor, Lester Szabo, and correction officer John Conklin.
Newton testified that some time prior to August 15, 1995, the piston housing had cracked on the shear machine in the Fishkill Correctional Facility metal fabrication shop, where Newton worked. He recalled that on August 15, the instructor, Lester Szabo, directed him and a co-worker to try to repair the machine, telling them that it would cost too much to have the manufacturer replace it. Newton stated that Szabo also decided it would be more inexpensive to make the wrench required to fix the machine than to order one, adding that he heard Szabo make a telephone call to a tool supplier who informed Szabo that the wrench would cost $40 to $50. Newton recounted that Szabo drafted the design for the wrench and that it was made by another inmate or inmates in the shop. Claimant's Exhibit 1 is a drawing by Newton of what the wrench looked like: it appears similar to a standard wrench, but is larger and has two "dowel pins" on the head.

Claimant testified that while using the wrench to try to repair the machine, "when placing it back on . . . due to the force required to tighten the cylinder and the hugeness of it it snapped one of the dowel pins . . . [w]hen the tool broke it caused the wrench to swing around, to swing back around and hit into the side of my arm, right wrist and created a laceration approximately an inch-and-a-half by three-quarter . . ." Newton recalled that after the incident, he was taken to the facility clinic, where he received approximately 13 sutures.

Claimant said that while he was in the clinic, a Sergeant Myers came to ask him what had happened and he explained that he was using a wrench which broke. He added that the officer asked him whether the wrench had slipped or broken and Newton said he believed it had broken by the way it "just maneuvered." Claimant recalled that while he was in the clinic, Sergeant Myers came to him with a "pre-written" statement. Claimant's Exhibit 2, a facility "Report of Inmate Injury" states that "using wrench, it slipped cutting right wrist" and indicates that there were no witnesses. Newton, however, stated that he told the sergeant there were witnesses to the event. He testified that he could not sign the form because he had been sedated and because he had injured the wrist of his writing (right) hand. Asked if the signature on the document, which appears awkwardly written, was his, Newton seemed to testify that he had signed it with his left hand. The document also appears to contain a nurse's signature under his.

Newton recited that after his treatment at the clinic was completed, he was told to go back to the shop to retrieve his belongings. While there, he examined the wrench and another inmate brought him the dowel pin piece that had broken off the wrench and "told me it was actually broken and that's why the wrench swung around and hit me like that." He added that he did not know the whereabouts of the wrench as of the date of trial and that the last time he saw it was in the hands of Sergeant Myers.

Newton said that he received treatment for his injury for approximately eight months afterwards: "I would go back when I had pain . . . and a sharp involuntary . . .muscle spasm I would receive even to this day and the nurse would tell me to do various exercises to try to get it back on active and that there was possibly damage that could not be repaired. . ." He said he received various medications such as aspirin for the pain. He also said that the wound healed "externally," but that there was "internal paralysis," adding "[s]he said it will probably never go away as far as involuntary muscle spasms, sharp pain and arthritis. . ."

Finally, Newton testified that he had never been trained in this particular tool and to support this, introduced as Claimant's Exhibit 5 a facility form listing various job titles and indications as whether and when an inmate was "considered experienced" in a particular title.
* * *
Correction Officer Vern Davis testified that he did not recall the incident involving claimant, but stated that his handwriting did appear on Claimant's Exhibit 2, the Report of Inmate Injury. The "reporting employee" on the form is signed "CO V Davis." Davis could not recall who was present when he filled out the form or when it was signed. He said that he would have written on the form whatever claimant told him,
i.e., he asserted that Newton must have told him that the wrench slipped and that there were no witnesses. He said that if claimant had not responded to his question of whether there were witnesses, he would have written "no response."
* * *
Lester Szabo, claimant's shop instructor, stated that Newton was a "good worker . . . very ambitious [and] willing to do anything and everything . . ." Szabo stated that his job at the facility was as an industrial training supervisor. He said he trained and worked with inmates, teaching them a trade and having them do production work, which in 1995, was of computer tables.

As to Newton's accident, Szabo stated that he remembered him working on adjusting or repairing a machine and that he slipped with a tool and cut himself, although Szabo said he had not actually seen the incident.

Asked if he would have made tools for the inmates to use, Szabo stated that he was a tool and die maker by trade, and that on some occasions when tools were needed, he would have inmates make them. However, he stated that he did not ever recall designing a wrench or having inmates make a wrench. Asked what he would do with a broken tool, Szabo stated that he would replace it and the broken tool would be discarded. As to the wrench used by claimant, Szabo stated "[i]t is my belief that [claimant] had Mr. Perez [another inmate] and possibly other [inmates], whoever was in the machine shop put together the wrench so it could be used."
* * *
Correction officer John Conklin stated that he knew Newton, as he had worked in the shop for years. He described his job duties as taking trucks in and out of the Fishkill shop area, and also periodically inspecting the shops to see what inmates were doing.

Conklin testified that he remembered the incident involving Newton, recalling that he was notified by someone else that Newton had cut his wrist. Upon learning of the incident, he went to make sure Newton had clean material on his wrist and he sought medical attention. Conklin testified that he asked Newton what had happened and Newton said that while using a wrench, it slipped and cut his wrist. Conklin stated that he prepared a report on the incident about an hour later.

Conklin testified that he had seen the wrench at issue in this case, which looked like a "router wrench"; he described it as an "open end type wrench but larger. Maybe the angle is a little bit wider." He stated that this was the type of wrench that could be purchased at a tool shop and he believed that the wrench Newton had used was store-bought. Conklin recounted that after the incident, the wrench was given back to Sergeant Myers and Conklin had no personal knowledge of what Myers did with it. Conklin testified that if a tool such as that described by Newton had to be disposed of, it "would probably be thrown in the scrap bin."
* * *
It is undisputed that an accident occurred while Newton was using a wrench, and that his wrist was injured during the incident, requiring sutures. What is disputed is: 1) whether the accident occurred because the wrench slipped or because it broke; and 2) whether the wrench was "home-made," and if so, whether it was made at the direction of claimant's instructor. These factual issues need not be reached, however, because even if we accept the version of the facts as testified to by Newton –
i.e., that he was using a "home-made" wrench designed and made at the direction of the instructor, which broke during usage – his claim must fail.
The state owes a duty to inmates who participate in correctional facility work projects to provide a safe work environment with reasonably safe machinery and equipment, and to apprise inmates of hazards that they could not reasonably be expected to themselves observe. See, e.g.,
Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877, 639 NYS2d 145 (3d Dept 1996); Savio v State of New York, Ct Cl filed 8/3/98, Bell, J.; Fitzgerald v State of New York, 28 Misc 2d 283, 217 NYS2d 817 (Ct Cl 1961).
In this case, no evidence was presented that the wrench used by Newton was not a reasonably safe piece of equipment. More specifically, no evidence was presented that it was unsafe or otherwise inappropriate for inmates to use or make "home-made" tools such as the wrench in question or that this particular wrench was unsafely or otherwise improperly designed or made.

Nor did Newton present any evidence that he should have been specially trained to use this wrench. The document he introduced as to his training (Claimant's Exhibit 5), deals with particular job titles such as "metal furniture assembler" and "metals handler"; it does not deal with particular tools. Finally, no evidence was presented that to the extent the wrench was disposed of after the incident, such disposal was improper.

Accordingly, in view of the foregoing, the claim of Mark Newton is

December 18, 2000
New York, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims