New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

MARTINDALE v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-013-516, Claim No. 97382


Prison inmate who was burned by a flame erupting from a pot which he removed from a mess hall stove failed to prove that the State was negligent or that any act on the part of the State caused his injury.

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:
Defendant's attorney:
Attorney General of the State of New York
BY: GREGORY P. MILLER, ESQ.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
December 31, 2001

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


This claim arose on October 26, 1997 at Wende Correctional Facility (Wende), when Claimant was working at his assigned job in a facility kitchen. His task was to clean pots and pans, and he arrived at work at approximately 5:00 to 5:30 a.m. Around 11:00 a.m., he observed that a pot on the stove was smoking. The burner underneath the pot was not turned on, and when he grabbed the handle with a glove, he found it to be warm, not hot. He observed a burned substance on the bottom of the pot but could not identify what it was. Claimant first took the pot to the clean-up area and placed it in the sink where it began "hissing" when it came into contact with water left in the bottom of the sink and other damp items such as vegetable residue. He let it cool off for a few minutes and then picked it up again to move it to the "pot area" so that he could clean it.

Suddenly, the contents of the pot began to flame, in what he described as a "brief blast" of fire. Claimant attempted to block the flame with his arm, trying to protect his face. The correction officer assigned to the area then came over to help him. Claimant was burned in two places on his arm (
see, Exhibit A), on the tip of his nose, and around his mouth. Claimant was treated at the facility infirmary and, after his burns were treated with salve and gauze, he was returned to his cell. He remained on medical keeplock for approximately a week, during which time he received treatment at the infirmary every day. Claimant was not allowed back at work until two weeks after the accident, and during the first week back, he was assigned to work with vegetables rather than at a task, such as clean-up, where he would be dealing with significant amounts of water.
Claimant testified that his burns have healed satisfactorily, with no lasting adverse effects other than a scar in the elbow area of his arm. I observed that the scar is pinkish and approximately 1½ inch long and ¾ of an inch wide.

On cross-examination, Claimant said that it was part of his regular duties to take pots from the stove top. He reiterated that he never knew what was in the pot and acknowledged that although there were some cooks present when he saw the smoking pot, he did not try to get their attention to find out what might be smoking.

Defendant called Edward Witucki, a civilian cook at the facility, as a witness. He identified Claimant as one of the inmate workers that he worked with several years prior to trial and stated that he had been present in the kitchen on the day Claimant was injured. Witucki had earlier observed Claimant going about his regular business and then saw a "ball of flame" suddenly engulf him as he approached the sink area. He had no idea if Claimant was carrying any pots or pans at the time. When asked if the flame had come from the sink, he stated that in his experience he did not see how it could have. He noted that the sink was located next to a gas range.

Claimant read into the record the text of an Unusual Incident Report, dated October 29, 1997 (Attachment, Bill of Particulars), which was prepared following interviews with the officer in charge and Mr. Witucki. The account of the incident was as follows:

Inmate Martindale, #91A6713 (D-24-7) observed a smoking pot on the stove. He removed the pot and when he put it in the sink, the contents ignited causing a fireball.
* * *

Inmate Martindale removed a smoking pot from the stove and when he placed it in the sink, it ignited into a fireball.

Defendant also introduced a document entitled Report of Inmate Injury (Exhibit B), the top part of which was signed by Claimant and contained the statement, "The stove flashed up and burned me." Claimant acknowledged that he had signed this document but said that he did not read it before he signed it.
When inmates are directed to participate in prison work programs, the State owes a duty to provide a safe workplace, with reasonably safe equipment, and to give adequate warnings and instructions for the safe operation of equipment (
Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877; Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910; Callahan v State of New York, 19 AD2d 437, affd 14 NY2d 665). On the other hand, the mere happening of an accident carries with it no presumption of negligence on the part of the State (Fitzgerald v State of New York, 28 Misc 2d 283; Richards v State of New York, 205 Misc 3).
Here, there was no testimony or expert opinion as to the cause of the fireball that injured Claimant, and a conclusion that it was caused by some breach of duty on the part of the State could be based only on speculation. In order to recover damages for an injury, a claimant must prove, by a preponderance of the credible evidence, that the negligence of the Defendant caused the injury
(Bernstein v City of New York, 69 NY2d 1020; quoting Ingersoll v Liberty Bank of Buffalo, 278 NY 1, 7), and this Claimant has failed to do.
The Chief Clerk is directed to enter judgment dismissing this claim.

All motions not heretofore ruled upon are hereby denied.


December 31, 2001
Rochester, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims