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
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" (
., 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
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
, 277 AD2d 767, lv denied
96 NY2d 704; Smith v State of New
, 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],
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 (
., 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
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