New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

ARCE v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-016-044, Claim No. 98165


Pro se claim arising from fall on prison staircase was dismissed following trial.

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):

Alan C. Marin
Claimant's attorney:
George Arce
Defendant's attorney:
Eliot Spitzer, Attorney GeneralBy: James E. Shoemaker, AAG
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
June 14, 2001
New York

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

This is the claim of George Arce, who asserts that owing to defendant's negligence, he fell on a staircase at Woodbourne Correctional Facility. In particular, Arce complains that the staircase, which had a handrail on only one side, should have had handrails on both sides. The claim was tried at Sullivan Correctional Facility, where Arce testified on his own behalf and called nurse Mary Ann Pike. For its part, defendant called fire and safety officer John Cassidy.

Arce testified that on February 1, 1998, he was returning from the mess hall at about 4:40 p.m. As he was climbing up a staircase -- which he described as eight to ten feet wide -- to return to his cell, his left leg gave out. He recalled that he tried to grab onto a handrail, but there was none on the right side as he was walking up, so he tumbled down the stairs. Claimant explained that he has problems with his leg and now uses a cane for support; he did not have a cane the day of his accident as he was waiting for it to be issued. Arce recollected that a number of inmates were returning from the mess hall at the same time; he was the last in line, about five feet behind the person in front of him.

Asked why he could not use the handrail on the other side of the staircase, he stated "if I'm on the right side -- in case people are walking down the stairs, I'm not to be in their way. They're going to have to go around me. So, they've got – the policy there is I have to stay to the right." Claimant first stated that no one was coming down the stairs as he was going up, but later said there could have been and he "could not say."

Arce recalled that after the incident, he was taken to the medical clinic where he was treated by Nurse Mary Ann Pike as well as a doctor. He added that he was admitted because he had banged the back of his head severely. Finally, he testified that he still suffers from headaches for which he receives medication.

Nurse Mary Ann Pike testified that on the date in question, at 4:45 p.m., claimant came to the health unit and said that while walking up the stairs, his left knee gave way without warning and he fell down the stairs. He indicated that he had banged the back of his head, had cut his fingers and was light-headed. She stated that at 5:30 p.m., claimant was brought back to the unit, and aside from the injuries he had already described, stated that he had hit his right elbow and pulled his lower back. She examined him and noted that he had superficial scrapes on his hand and that there were no abrasions, lacerations or redness on his head. Claimant was then admitted into the infirmary for evaluation.

John Cassidy, a fire and safety officer at Woodbourne, testified that his duties entailed "[c]odes, enforcement, fire . . . safety situations. I also investigate accidents . . . " He added that he had a "code certification" which he had received in 1993.

Cassidy stated that he was familiar with the staircase in question, which he described as six feet wide, having viewed it the day before trial. He indicated that the portion of the staircase on which claimant fell was the lowest portion, going down to the sub-basement. The upper portions of the staircase were wider,
i.e., approximately eight feet; those portions had handrails on both sides. Cassidy recounted that at the bottom of the staircase is a "grille gate." He explained that when the gate was installed, the left side railing was removed because if persons used that rail, they would run into the gate.
Cassidy testified that inmates go to dinner in groups and that there are never groups going up and down the staircase at the same time. He thus described it as a "one way" staircase, although he also testified that aside from going to mess hall, the staircase was used at "program times . . . rec flow" and perhaps to pick up legal mail at night.

Cassidy recalled that he investigated the incident after Arce filed a grievance and found that the accident was a result of Arce's knee problems, not a safety or design problem. The response to claimant's grievance indicates that "The Fire and Safety Officer has determined that the stairway in question is in compliance and is not in need of another handrail. The traffic going up and down the stairway is able to use the handrail on the left side." See claimant's exhibit 2. Cassidy also noted that Arce's was the only staircase accident he could recall.

Cassidy also contended that one handrail was in compliance with the State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code, 9 NYCRR §600
et seq. In support thereof, he relied on a one-page submission, entitled §713.1 of Title 9, dated 6-30-84. Subsection (f)(1) thereof entitled "Handrails and railings" provides that "[s]tairs or steps of more than three risers shall have a handrail or railing parallel to the stair slope on at least one side. Where one or both sides of such stairs or steps are open, railings shall be provided on open sides." See defendant's exhibit A. Since it appears undisputed that the staircase in question is not open on either side, Cassidy concluded that only one handrail was required.
However, a review of the current version of 9 NYCRR §713.1 indicates that it applies to one- and two-family dwellings, whereas prisons are covered by §765.4(a)(11) with regard to staircase handrails. That section provides that staircases of more than 44" in width shall have handrails on both sides and those of more than 88" shall have an intermediate handrail. In any event, even assuming that defendant's exhibit A code section does not apply, no other evidence was presented as to what code provision was in place at the time the relevant structure at Woodbourne was constructed, nor for that matter was any evidence offered as to the date of such construction, alteration, etc. Accordingly, claimant has failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that any applicable section of the Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code was violated.

Even if claimant had proved such a violation, it would not be
per se evidence of negligence, but would instead be considered only as some evidence thereof, to be considered along with all the other evidence in the case and only if it were a substantial factor in bringing about the accident. See PJI §2:29. The lack of a handrail was not proven by a preponderance of the evidence to be a substantial factor in claimant's accident. Among other things, claimant's testimony suggesting that others could have been coming down the staircase as he was going up was not convincing; he first stated that no one was coming down the stairs, and later changed his testimony to say that there might have been persons coming down, and that he "could not say."
In view of the foregoing, George Arce failed to prove defendant's negligence by a preponderance of the evidence and IT IS ORDERED that claim no. 98165 be dismissed.


June 14, 2001
New York, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims