New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

GARCIA v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-007-569, Claim No. 96616


Claimant stepped into a floor drain and injured his right leg while working in the mess hall at Gouverneur Correctional Facility. Defendant found liable.

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):

John L. Bell
Claimant's attorney:
Defendant's attorney:
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
October 1, 2001

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


On June 21, 1997, claimant stepped into a floor drain and injured his right leg while working in the mess hall at Gouverneur Correctional Facility, St. Lawrence County. Claimant alleges that a metal grate that covered the floor drain was not properly secured and gave way when he stepped on it. The trial was bifurcated and thus proof was limited to the issue of liability.

At the commencement of the trial, claimant's counsel stated on the record that his client was being held in custody in Louisiana by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. Counsel was thus permitted to read into evidence portions of the examination before trial testimony of claimant pursuant to CPLR 3117(a)(3)(iii). Indeed, at the time the examination before trial was conducted, the parties were aware that it was likely that claimant would not be able to attend the trial. The examination before trial testimony of claimant was later received into evidence, without objection, as claimant's exhibit 5.

Testifying with the assistance of an interpreter, claimant recalled that he was transferred to Gouverneur Correctional Facility sometime during 1996. About one month after he arrived at Gouverneur, he was assigned to work in the facility's mess hall. He initially rotated among several jobs but was eventually assigned to work as a dishwasher. He was working as a dishwasher on the date of the accident.

Claimant recalled that he arrived at the mess hall at about 5:00 p.m. on June 21, 1997. He ate dinner and then began his tasks as a dishwasher. As part of his duties, he reportedly removed clean dishes and trays from the dishwasher and carried them to another area in the mess hall. He stated that while he was moving some trays, he stepped into a floor drain. He indicated that the floor drain was square, with sides measuring 12 to 18 inches. Claimant related that his right leg went into the hole almost up to his knee. He recalled that his right forearm hit the floor as he fell. Two other inmates working in the area came over and assisted claimant out of the hole. He was carried to the facility's infirmary for initial treatment.

Claimant's counsel next read into evidence the examination before trial testimony of Correction Officer Billy L. McBride. McBride had been at Gouverneur for 10 years and had been assigned to the mess hall for six years. He described the mess hall as approximately 200 feet by 200 feet, with a dining area separated from the kitchen area. The kitchen area was about 50 feet by 80 feet. He related that approximately 10 correction officers monitored the mess hall. He stated that inmates are assigned to various jobs in the mess hall, with duties ranging from cooking to cleaning up the area.

Officer McBride testified that the floor in the kitchen area of the mess hall was comprised of one-foot square ceramic tiles. He recalled that there were five floor drains in the kitchen area of the mess hall. He stated that the floor drains were square, with each side about 16 to 18 inches long. McBride explained that steel grates covered the holes of the drains and the grates were fastened to the floor by six screws. He acknowledged that his duties included inspecting the grates to make sure they were secure. He stated that if he observed a grate that needed repair he would fill out a "work order."

Officer McBride recalled that on the date of claimant's accident he was told by someone that there was a problem with one of the floor drains. McBride did not recall who had informed him of the problem or what time he received the notice. He did, however, acknowledge that the information was relayed to him before claimant's accident. McBride observed that the grate was not fastened to the floor. He thus moved a garbage can over the grate and hole. He could not recall whether he took any other steps to barricade the hole or provide warnings about the condition. He "believe[d]" he told the inmates in the vicinity that the grate was loose and that they were not to move the garbage can he had placed over the hole (Claimant's Exhibit 6, at 25). Officer McBride could not recall, however, whether claimant was present when he provided the verbal warning about the condition of the floor. He stated that the subject floor drain was located "right in front of the line where [inmates] do the dishes" (
After McBride was informed that claimant had fallen into the floor drain, he returned to inspect the drain. He observed that the trash can that he had placed over the hole had been moved. He stated that he did not know who had moved the trash can. He further stated that the grate was "sitting in the drain area on an angle" (
id., at 27). He could not recall if he spoke to any inmates or correction officers regarding whether they had observed the accident. He recorded in the log book that claimant fell into the drain hole at 5:30 p.m.
Following the reading of the deposition testimony, claimant rested his case. Defendant did not produce Correction Officer McBride as a witness. Indeed, defendant did not produce any witnesses.

The State is not under an obligation to insure against every injury occurring on its property (
Matter of Boettcher v State of New York, 256 AD2d 882; Condon v State of New York, 193 AD2d 874). Like all landowners, however, the State owes a duty to individuals upon its property to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition under the prevailing circumstances (Clairmont v State of New York, 277 AD2d 767, lv denied 96 NY2d 704; Smith v State of New York, 260 AD2d 819). Such duty includes the condition of premises within correctional facilities (see, e.g., Bowers v State of New York, 241 AD2d 760; Acosta v State of New York, Ct Cl, Oct. 27, 1997 [Claim No. 93765], Bell, J.).
Here, it is uncontested that defendant had notice that the grate was loose. Officer McBride acknowledged that he had observed the loose grate before claimant fell into the hole. McBride testified that he covered the hole with a garbage can and may have issued a verbal warning to the inmates in the vicinity. McBride did not recall, however, whether claimant was present when he issued his warning. Moreover, claimant spoke very little English and thus, even if he was present, the verbal statement may not have been understood by him.

Placing a garbage can over a large hole in a floor might arguably be a reasonable initial step. Such step, however, constituted a solution of very short duration. It was reasonably foreseeable that the garbage can might be moved for any number of reasons, such as someone working in the vicinity and viewing the garbage can as merely being out of place and moving it. There was no evidence that defendant's employees were in the process of obtaining orange cones or other warning devices. Nor was there any evidence that any timely effort was made to secure screws to reattach the grate over the hole.

Defendant failed to produce its employee, Correction Officer McBride, who had knowledge regarding the germane events. Such a failure by defendant does not weigh favorably to its position (
see, e.g., 1A PJI 1:75[3d ed]). The court finds that the only step defendant took to secure or warn of the hole was to place a garbage can over the hole. The court further concludes that the condition existed for a sufficient time for defendant to take further precautionary measures, but it failed to do so. The presence of a loose grate over a large hole constituted a dangerous condition that mandated prompt and effective action by defendant. The mere placing of a trash can over the hole, followed by no additional action, failed to satisfy defendant's duty to keep the premises reasonably safe under the prevailing conditions. It was reasonably foreseeable that an inmate working in the kitchen would step into the large hole. Defendant is liable to claimant. There was no convincing proof of comparative negligence and thus defendant's liability is assessed at 100%.
The Chief Clerk of the Court of Claims is directed to enter interlocutory judgment accordingly.

A trial on damages will commence at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, November 1, 2001, at the St. Lawrence County Courthouse, 48 Court Street, Canton, New York 13617-1194.

October 1, 2001
Plattsburgh, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims