Claimant instituted this lawsuit against the State of New York to recover for
injuries he sustained on September 7, 1995, while incarcerated at Watertown
Correctional Facility (hereinafter Watertown). Claimant, who is confined to a
wheelchair, asserts that the State was negligent in failing to install a
handicap ramp or otherwise provide ingress or egress from the building where he
was housed. The trial of this matter was bifurcated and this decision addresses
only the issue of liability.
In 1992, Claimant lost a leg as a result of a gunshot wound and has thereafter
been confined to a wheelchair except for short periods of time when he uses
crutches or braces. After he was incarcerated, Claimant was assigned to the
Watertown facility in February 1995, which lacks handicap accessibility.
Claimant resided in that facility's infirmary because it was the building
easiest for him to enter and exit. Although there is more than one door in the
infirmary, Claimant was only allowed to use one door. The other doors were for
inmates arriving for sick call or for employees.
Received into evidence were photographs of the door used by Claimant, showing a
double metal door. One of the doors remained locked. The unlocked door pushed
open to the outside. At the base of the doorway, there was a metal threshold
which was raised above the floor of the infirmary about one-half inch. From the
doorway, there was a 2-3/4" to 3-1/2" step to the ground.
On a typical day, Claimant would leave and return to the infirmary twice; once
to go to school and once for recreation. To leave the infirmary, Claimant would
go down the hall, past the guard, to the door. He then threw the door open; and
before it could close on him, he lifted the front wheels of his wheelchair up
over the threshold and set them down on the ground outside. Claimant would then
catch the door. That was how he was trained, after his injury, to use the
wheelchair at Bellevue Hospital. Claimant had to lift the front wheels, or he
would fall forward down the step. To go inside, Claimant would hold the door
open with his left hand and use his right hand to lift the wheels up over the
On September 7, 1995, Claimant was leaving the infirmary at approximately 6:15
p.m. for recreation. Correction Officer Derrigo was at the officer's station
located in the main hallway; the door Claimant used was at one end of that hall.
Claimant remembers passing the officer and notifying him that he was going to
the yard for recreation. He threw the door open, lifted his wheels, and started
falling backwards. His next memory was awakening in Good Samaritan Hospital in
Officer Derrigo did not witness the accident, but heard a noise as if something
was falling to the floor. He looked toward the main door and saw Claimant on
his back in his wheelchair with the door propped open. He and another officer
assisted Claimant who was taken by ambulance to the hospital. On direct
examination, the officer testified that he had observed Claimant "popping
wheelies" (lifting the front of his wheelchair and balancing on the larger back
wheels) on many occasions, including when leaving the infirmary. Mr. Derrigo
had warned Claimant that he would tip over backwards if he continued that
On cross-examination, Officer Derrigo said Claimant always lifted his front
wheels going out the door when the door was closed; he needed to throw the door
open and negotiate the approximately three-inch drop. When the door was propped
open, Claimant could ease himself over the threshold without lifting the front
Testifying on behalf of the defendant, in addition to Officer Derrigo, was
Correction Officer Ronald Reynolds. In September 1995, he was the Hospital
Officer from 3:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m. He recalled that Claimant was assigned
to live in the infirmary because of Claimant's confinement to a wheelchair.
Officer Reynolds testified that like Officer Derrigo he spoke to Claimant about
the danger of "popping wheelies" on a couple of occasions telling Claimant that
if he kept doing it he was probably going to get hurt. Claimant performed this
activity when he was going to "rec"
as he went out the door. Generally, he would be about three-to-four feet from
the door when he lifted the front wheels up. On cross-examination, the officer
said he did not know if it was necessary for Claimant to lift the wheels to get
in and out of the door.
Both officers saw Claimant move about the infirmary without his wheelchair.
Officer Reynolds recalled he would go to the yard without his wheelchair toward
the end of his stay at Watertown. He could not recall if it was before or after
the accident in question. Officer Derrigo saw Claimant use braces or crutches
on occasion in the infirmary. Claimant testified he could get around by holding
onto something, and that he does use crutches for short periods of time.
Received into evidence, subject to objections contained therein or any made by
were transcripts from the depositions of the Nurse Administrator, John O'Kay,
Correction Officer Derrigo, and Mary Detterich, the nurse on duty at the time of
Claimant's accident. Nurse Detterich testified that when she reached Claimant
after his fall, he was unconscious, on his back, and "the wheelchair was inside
and probably his legs were sticking outside."
Her notes of this incident reflected that he was half-in and half-out of the
On the issue of notice to the State, the Court received documents that indicate
the Claimant filed a grievance in May 1995, approximately four months before
this incident, indicating that on April 22, 1995, Claimant hit his head after he
fell backwards in his wheelchair while exiting the infirmary. In the grievance
he requested that a ramp be installed or that he be transferred to Green Haven,
a maximum security facility with handicap accessibility and physical therapy
services. Also received (for purposes of notice only) were letters dated June
7, 1995 from the Assistant Director of Health Services of the Department of
Correction which were sent to Claimant's mother and wife, indicating a transfer
for Claimant was under consideration and that he would receive assistance in
entering and exiting the infirmary.
Both parties addressed this matter under theories of premises
The claimant, who was pro se
when the claim was filed, alleged that the
State was negligent "in falling [sic] to mantain [sic] the aforesaid premeses
[sic] in a safe condition by failing to provied [sic] adecute [sic] ramp for
disable [sic] or handicap [sic] and by failing to keep the surfaces clear of any
The State owes a duty to maintain its premises "in a reasonably safe condition
in view of all the circumstances, including the likelihood of injury to others,
the seriousness of the injury and the burden of avoiding the risk." (
Basso v Miller,
40 NY2d 233, 241) This duty extends to protect those in
the State's institutions. (See, Killeen v State of New York,
850) The question is whether under these circumstances, the State breached its
duty to Claimant.
The Commissioner of Correction has discretion in transferring inmates from one
facility to another and the inmates have no right to choose their housing status
or facility. (Correction Law §23,
Matter of Davis v Office of Classification & Movement, New York State
Dept. of Correctional Servs.,
208 AD2d 922) Clearly, Claimant had no control
over where he would be housed. (Matter of Davis v Office of Classification
& Movement, New York State Dept. of Correctional Servs., supra
The State had ample notice of the potential for injury,
as well as notice of the specific condition which Claimant alleged was dangerous
based upon Claimant's previous fall trying to exit the infirmary and the
grievance he filed with the facility. In its grievance response in June, the
State agreed to install a ramp to make the infirmary handicap accessible but had
not done so as of the date of the accident. Even if the ramp could not be
immediately constructed, this was not the only action the State had available to
it for avoiding Claimant's injury. The claimant had to get permission from a
correction officer before leaving the infirmary. The burden on the defendant
would have been negligible to have an officer or one of the nurses on duty
assist Claimant in exiting the building. Another option would have been to
transfer Claimant to a handicapped accessible facility, which he had requested
when he filed his grievance, and which was being considered at the time Claimant
was injured. It is inexplicable why Claimant would be housed in a facility
which is not handicapped accessible in the first instance. Accordingly, the
Court finds the State 100 percent liable for the injuries to Claimant. The
Clerk is directed to enter an interlocutory judgment and this matter will be set
down for a trial on damages.
LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.