New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

PENA v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-005-013, Claim No. 100644


Inmate's claim for negligence resulting in personal injury is bifurcated. Liability is not found. Claim is 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):

Claimant's attorney:
Leland T. Williams, Esq.
Defendant's attorney:
Eliot Spitzer, Attorney GeneralBy: Reynolds E. Hahn, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
September 27, 2001

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


This claim arises from an incident occurring on March 10, 1999 at approximately 1:20 p.m. at the vocational school welding shop at Groveland Correctional Facility (Groveland) during which the Claimant was injured. Liability is predicated upon the theory that the Defendant breached its duties to instruct, warn and supervise the Claimant in the proper use of the Scotchman Ironworker (see Exhibits 1, 2, and E). The main thrust of these arguments focus upon Claimant's purported inability to speak or read English, and the absence of instruction or materials in his native language of Spanish. The trial of this matter was bifurcated and this decision addresses only the issue of liability.

Groveland Correctional Facility, as part of its rehabilitation process, teaches inmates in certain vocational skill programs which may assist them in finding employment when they are released from prison. All inmates, English speaking or non-English speaking, are offered such programs. Claimant, an inmate who was housed at Groveland, was a full time student with two modules of instruction, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The afternoon instruction consisted of arc welding in the vocational school metal shop with a civilian teacher in charge. The teacher would appoint a teacher's aide from the more advanced (read more experienced and trained) inmates
to assist him.
To learn how to arc weld, the students are given "coupons" to practice the welds. These coupons are small pieces of metal stock approximately 4½ inches by 1½ inches which they weld together. The metal stock arrives at Groveland in 24 foot lengths which are cut in half by the teacher's aide and stocked in the metal shop. They are then cut into the 4½ inch lengths to form the coupons which are then used for practice welding. The cutting of the stock to coupon size is performed by trained inmates.

Claimant was born in 1963 in the Dominican Republic and was educated until the 7
th grade after which he worked in agriculture and then as a cook in restaurants. He came to the United States in 1994 and remained here as an illegal immigrant until his deportation after his prison term was completed. While in the United States he worked as a cook in New York City until he was arrested in 1996 and remained in the custody of the State of New York until his deportation. Claimant's trial testimony was heard at Groveland, prior to his deportation. He claims that he is unable to speak or read the English language and is able to

understand only a few things in English. His testimony was taken with the use of an interpreter.
On March 10, 1999, Claimant was in the afternoon vocational metal shop class at Groveland with some 14 or 15 other inmate students. He was trained by the teacher through the assistance of other bilingual inmates and teacher's aides. He was assigned to the Scotchman Ironworker, a metal shearing machine that cut the 10 to 12 foot long pieces of metal stock to 4½ inch lengths. He had used this machine before and he asserted that: "I used it a lot of times because I knew how. I was an advanced student. I used it a lot of times." He claims that he was trained by a teacher's-aide. "I don't remember exactly the times, but every time I went in the machine, they would show it to me." He claims that on the day in question the teacher unlocked the Scotchman machine at his request and that he proceeded to operate the machine.

Claimant described the sequence of how he was injured:
Well, I told the teacher I'm going to cut a piece, that the machine was turned off, that I was going to – I told him I was going to use [it] and I asked him to put it on, turn it on. He turned it on. The little piece was given to me earlier by the teacher's aide. Then I just put the piece in the way they taught me, the way I knew it. I put the piece in and I secured it with the security latch. I have all my clothes on, put it on. When I put my foot down on the control to have the blade coming down, I didn't have my hands too close to where the piece was, I had it a little bit far away. When I pressed down the foot so the blade will come down, the security latch flew, it unlatched and the piece flew out. That's when it cut me. Then I felt the cut.[1]

The civilian teacher testified about the day of the accident as well, describing the normal operation of the Scotchman, and disputing certain of Claimant's contentions. He described the

hold-down bar of the Scotchman as a round, solid two-inch bar with an octagonal cut at the end of the bar, and is attached to a cam which, when operated in a specific direction, permits the bar to rotate forward and backwards as the operator directs (see, Exhibit E, p 40). As he explained, the stock is placed on the bed of the Scotchman and continues under the hold down bar until it comes into contact with a fixed stop; the hold down bar is engaged, contacts the stock and tightens itself onto the stock; the operator removes his hands from the machine; the foot petal is then activated by the operator, and the blade hydraulically descends to cut the metal stock. The blade is not a cycle-type but is actively controlled by the pressure on the foot petal; if the foot petal is released, then the blade stops. The final cut is made by the instructor-teacher.
The teacher testified that on the day of the accident, he was standing at his desk some nine or ten feet from the Scotchman when he heard a "loud bang noise" and then observed that Claimant was "holding his hand, glove still on it and a very pale look on his face and a cold sweat." The teacher reasoned that the noise was caused by the inappropriate use of the Scotchman which snaps the stock after it is cut. The instructor discounted the testimony of Claimant about the cause of the accident, believing that the injury was caused when Claimant left his finger under the hold down bar which was not properly positioned prior to the machine's operation. I do not agree with his surmise about how this injury was incurred, and I credit Claimant's testimony to the extent that I find that
there was a separate piece that flew up and hit his finger causing the cut.
On the other hand, I accept the instructor's testimony that there were never any previous

problems with the Scotchman. Certainly there was no evidence or testimony that the machine

had not operated as intended, or was defective. Indeed, Claimant abandoned any causes of action relying upon the condition of the Scotchman.
Claimant alleges negligence in that the Defendant purportedly provided no Spanish language instructional manuals or materials; that Claimant did not understand English and was not instructed in Spanish; that Claimant was not trained in the use of the machine, and thus the State breached its duty to protect its inmates from injury primarily in its failure to properly instruct and supervise the use of the machine. There was contradictory and conflicting testimony about the provison of instruction and the translation of written materials by other inmates who were bi-lingual in Spanish.

It has long been accepted that the State has the duty to exercise reasonable care in providing for the safety of inmates working in its correctional facilities and to provide a reasonably safe place to work
(Palmisano v State of New York, 47 AD2d 692; Callahan v State of New York, 19 AD2d 437, affd 14 NY2d 665). While inmates who have been injured while working in correctional facilities are not entitled to the full range of protections afforded by the Labor Law, they are nevertheless entitled to a work place that is reasonably safe under the prevailing circumstances (Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910, 913), and the State must provide proper instruction and supervision (Oakley v State of New York, 38 AD2d 998, affd 32 NY2d 773).
On this record, the Claimant has failed to establish any standard of care in the operation of the metal shop, other than his self-serving allegations of duty to instruct, warn and/or

supervise. He relies on the fact that he was injured while operating a metal shearing machine by
a piece of metal that flew from the machine, struck him on his gloved finger and caused him

injury. Claimant states that the "security latch flew, it unlatched and the piece flew out." He offers no opinion testimony concerning the condition of the machine or any testimony as to how or why the latch failed. He does not allege that the machine was defective or that its point of operation was unguarded or that guarding hardware was missing.
There must be a showing that the purported negligence was a proximate cause of the injuries sustained, and it is on this question that the proof is lacking. On the evidence before me, I cannot tell what caused the accident. The Claimant has been unable to establish what caused the latch to fly open or to unlatch. Was the machine defective? Was there a safety device or guard which should have prevented the machine from operating if it were not in place? If there were a safety device, was it defective or withheld from the inmates? In other words, what circumstance existed that allowed the machine to operate without the security latch being properly secured, and, then what was the duty breached by the Defendant? In the absence of such proof, it is unnecessary for me to resolve the testimonial dispute regarding the permission, or lack thereof, with respect to the use of the machine, and whether the instructor unlocked the machine at Claimant's request. It also becomes unnecessary to disentangle the incongruency of Claimant's assertions that he knew how to use the machine, that he was an advanced student, and that he had used it many times, as contrasted with his contention that he was inadequately trained, primarily because he was Spanish-speaking. Finally, it undermines any argument relying upon a purported lack of supervision.

Thus, I find that Claimants' injury was not the result of violation of any standard of care owed to Claimant by the Defendant. The flying piece of metal, on this record, was an accident,

but I am unable to attribute it to any breach of duty by the Defendant.
Accordingly, the claim is dismissed. All motions not heretofore ruled upon are now denied. Let judgment be entered accordingly.

September 27, 2001
Rochester, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] Trial Transcript, p 39.