Claimant seeks damages for injuries she sustained on November 13, 1996 during
her incarceration at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility ("Bedford").
Claimant was transported in a facility van, along with five other inmates, from
Saint Agnes Hospital ("St. Agnes") to Bedford. Claimant was not seatbelted and
sustained injury when the van stopped suddenly and claimant was thrust forward,
hitting the seat in front of her. The trial of this claim was bifurcated and
this Decision pertains solely to the issue of liability.
Claimant was assigned to the second seat in the van. Claimant's hands were
cuffed in front of her body and chained to her waist. She also had leg
shackles. Claimant testified that she was not seatbelted, nor could she fasten
her seatbelt without assistance.
According to claimant, the van stopped suddenly; the back of the van became
elevated; and claimant was thrown forward. Claimant stated that she heard a
"big bang" and she was slammed into the front
Correction Officer Cheryl Jackson, the assigned escort officer, testified that
she was responsible for insuring that the inmates were seatbelted. She stated
that sometimes inmates fastened their own seatbelts, which she maintained could
be done even if they were restrained. She did not, however, contend that
inmates should seatbelt themselves. Jackson did not observe whether or not
claimant was seatbelted.
Correction Officer Alexander Cheney, the transport officer, testified that he
drove the van and was armed. He did not have any direct contact with the
inmates and was not responsible for insuring that the inmates were seatbelted.
Cheney testified that he had "probably" driven the van before the day of the
accident and, assuming that he had, he had not experienced any difficulty with
the vehicle. He did not testify to any routine maintenance, if any, that was
undertaken to ensure that the vehicle's brakes were in good working order.
Cheney testified that he did not have any problem with the brakes during his
drive from Bedford to St. Agnes. However, when he started to leave the parking
lot at St. Agnes to return to Bedford, the brakes on the van "gave out." Cheney
applied pressure again and again to the brakes, but they did not respond. He
then pressed "very hard" on the brakes and the van dipped forward and the rear
became elevated (Ex. 2). The inmates were bounced around inside the van.
New York State Department of Corrections Unusual Incident Report indicates
that the van was towed from the scene to the dealer (Ex. A). The dealer found
"L/R WHEEL CYLINDER LEAKING" and replaced "L/R WHEEL CYLINDER" and "L&R REAR
BRAKE SHOES" (Ex. D).
Defendant contends that the brake failure was unanticipated and that
defendant exercised reasonable care to keep the brakes in good working order
, Suitor v Boivin
, 219 AD2d 799, 800; O'Callaghan v
, 112 AD2d 1030, 1031). "[W]here the operator of the moving vehicle
alleges that the accident was the result of brake failure and presents evidence
that the brake problem was unanticipated, and that reasonable care had been
exercised to keep the brakes in good working order, he or she has demonstrated a
nonnegligent explanation for the happening of the accident" (Schuster v Amboy
, 267 AD2d 448, 448-49). In Liana v Atacil Contr.
, 212 AD2d
673, the Second Department held that the accident was due to the sudden and
unexpected brake failure of defendant's dump truck. The Court noted that
defendant presented evidence that the dump truck, including the brakes, was
inspected annually and that the last inspection was conducted eight months to a
year prior to the accident. Additionally, the Court noted that the driver
testified that the brakes were operating perfectly until minutes before the
accident, giving the driver "no reason to have suspected the brakes of imminent
In the instant case,
the evidence was insufficient to establish that defendant exercised reasonable
care to insure that the brakes were in good working order. In fact, there was
no testimony as to what maintenance, if any, was undertaken regarding the
brakes, and the documentary evidence submitted does not refer to any inspection
or service of the brakes. Additionally, the credible evidence was lacking as to
the alleged sudden and unanticipated brake failure. Significantly absent from
the testimony offered at trial was the extent and duration of the leak from the
brake cylinder. Accordingly, the Court finds that defendant has not
demonstrated a nonnegligent explanation for the happening of the accident
, Schuster v Amboy Bus. Co.
). Rather, defendant
was negligent in its failure to maintain the brakes and to take notice of the
leaking cylinder prior to the accident. In any event, whether or not the brake
failure was unanticipated, an independent basis for holding defendant 100
percent liable for the injuries claimant sustained in the accident is
defendant's failure to insure that claimant was seatbelted, despite defendant's
acknowledgment of such duty.
Upon filing of this Decision, the Court will set the matter down for a trial
on the issue of damages as soon as practicable.
LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.