New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

JOHNSON v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-028-0011, Claim No. 100092


Negligence - failure to provide cover for light bulbs. Breaking lightbulb was a foreseeable hazard where light fixture came with protective cover and State was not replacing covers. Claimant's act in striking bulb and causing it to break while moving locker is contributory negligence. Liability fixed at 80% claimant and 20% State

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:
BY: Kevan J. Acton, Esq. Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
April 13, 2001

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

This claim alleges the State of New York was negligent when it failed to replace a protective lens cover on a wall mounted light fixture in Claimant's cell. Claimant alleged he suffered an eye injury when struck with glass from a flourescent light bulb he broke while moving furniture in his cell. Claimant further alleged that the Defendant failed to provide appropriate and necessary medical care for the eye injury.

The Claimant testified that the accident occurred on January 3, 1999 at approximately 10:51 a.m. At that time, Claimant, an inmate at Coxsackie Correctional Facility, was engaged in the general clean-up of his cell. Claimant presented a diagram of the cell (Exhibit 1) and testified regarding movement of the furniture in his cell for general clean-up. It was while he was pulling his locker back into its place that it tilted up and struck the wall mounted light fixture causing one of two flourescent bulbs to shatter. Glass from the shattered bulb came into contact with Claimant's left eyebrow causing a laceration. While Claimant testified that three butterfly bandages were applied by an infirmary staff member, the facility medical record (Exhibit A) reflect "2 steri-stripes" were applied to a "1"" laceration. Claimant testified he returned to the infirmary two additional times in January complaining that he was still in pain and his eye muscle "was spasming or contracting"[1]
. Finally, Claimant testified he has a permanent scar over his left eye as a result of this accident, and, he continues to experience pain in the "inner eye layer" when he looks to the left.[2]
Thomas King (King), plant superintendent at Coxsackie Correctional Facility at the time of the accident, testified for the Defendant. King confirmed Claimant's description of the light fixture, and added that the fixture was mounted approximately five feet above the floor and contained two eighteen inch flourescent light bulbs. The fixtures came equipped with a plastic cover over the light bulbs. King testified the covers were intended to keep the inmates away from the lights and to keep the bulbs clean. According to King, approximately eighty (80) percent of the light fixtures in the facility were without covers because they were dirty, scratched or had been removed by inmates to provide more light. He was aware
covers had been removed. Finally, King testified that he didn't consider the coverless fixtures a safety hazard, and, he knew of no other incidents wherein injuries had been caused by such light bulb breakage.

Failure to Provide Adequate Treatment
To establish a prima facie case of liability in a medical malpractice action, a plaintiff must prove (1) the standard of care in the locality where the treatment occurred, (2) that the defendant breached that standard of care, and (3) that the breach of the standard was the proximate cause of injury.
Berger v Becker, 272 AD2d 565. When the medical malpractice involves patient treatment, three component duties are owed by the physician to the patient: (1) the duty to possess the requisite knowledge and skill such as is possessed by the average member of the medical possession; (2) a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in the application of such professional knowledge and skill; and (3) the duty to use his best judgment in the application of this knowledge and skill. Littlejohn v State of New York 87 AD2d 951, 952 citing Pike v Honsinger, 155 NY 201, 209- 210.
To sustain this burden, a plaintiff must present expert testimony that the defendant's conduct constituted a deviation from the requisite standard of care.
Berger v Becker, 272 AD2d 565, supra; and Koehler v Schwartz, 48 NY2d 807 (Expert testimony is necessary... unless the
matter is one which is within the experience and observation of the ordinary juror). See also, Stanback v. State of New York, 163 AD2d 298 (Inmate's expert medical witness testified to lack of treatment).
What constitutes the appropriate standard of medical care and treatment for an eye injury such as the type and nature sustained by Claimant is not within the experience and observation of the trier of fact. The Claimant presented no expert testimony to demonstrate that the defendant departed from an accepted standard of care in either assessing the injury or in the course of treatment he received. The only medical evidence presented was a one page record of Claimant's visits to the infirmary (Exhibit A). Claimant's bare assertions that the treatment he received was inadequate does not satisfy his burden of proof. Accordingly, Claimant has failed to establish a
prima facie case of malpractice.
The State is not an insurer of the safety of inmates in its correctional institutions (
Padgett v State of New York, 163 AD2d 914, lv denied 76 NY2d 711; Casella v State of New York, 121 AD2d 495), and negligence will not be inferred from the mere happening of an incident (Mochen v State of New York, 57 AD2d 719; Van Barneveld v State of New York, 35 AD2d 900). The State, however, is required to use reasonable care to protect the inmates of its correctional facilities from foreseeable risk of harm (Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233, 241, Flaherty v State of New York, 296 NY 342). To establish that the State violated this duty, claimant must prove that it had notice of the condition and that it failed to act reasonably to remedy the condition (Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836; Goldblatt v State of New York, 72 AD2d 886; Rinaldi v State of New York, 49 AD2d 361). If the risk of harm was foreseeable, the particular manner in which the injury occurred here is not material to defendant's liability (Buckley ex. rel. Buckley v Sun and Surf Beach Club, Inc., 95 NY2d 914, 915).
Applying the foregoing principles to the instant case, the Court finds that the Defendant was aware that the plastic covering to the wall mounted light fixture located in the inmates' quarters was being removed by inmates. The Defendant was also aware of the intended purpose of the plastic cover. For whatever reason, the Defendant was not replacing the plastic cover thereby leaving the light bulbs expose[3]
. The presence of the plastic cover likely would have either prevented the breakage or contained the flying glass. On the basis of the foregoing, the Court finds that the risk of injury from an exposed light bulb in a confined living space was foreseeable and the State's failure to remedy the condition was a breach of the duty it owed to Claimant, and, as a result, Defendant is liable for the injuries sustained by Claimant.
The Court also finds that the Claimant must bear the lion's share of the responsibility for the happening of this accident as it was his own actions in carelessly moving the locker in close proximity to the exposed light bulbs and in causing the locker to "tilt forward" and strike the fixture. As such, the Court apportions liability in this matter 20% to the Defendant and 80% to the Claimant.

In making an award of damages, the Court is limited by the Claimant's failure to provide any medical evidence regarding the nature and extent of the injury and absent such evidence, the Court will not credit Claimant's testimony regarding the continuing nature of the injury. As such, no award is made for future pain and suffering. In view of the testimony and having observed the small scar which remains nearly one year after the accident, the Court awards the sum of $3,000.00 as damages for past pain and suffering and for the resultant scar. Claimant's proportionate share of liability was eighty (80) percent; and accordingly, the damage award in favor of Claimant is $600.00.

The Chief Clerk is directed to enter judgment 1) for the Claimant in the amount of

$600.00 on the negligence cause of action and 2) for the Defendant dismissing the failure to
provide adequate treatment cause of action.[4]

April 13, 2001
Albany, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] All quotations are to the trial notes or audiotapes unless otherwise indicated.
[2] The Court observed a small scar over Claimant's left eye.
[3] Claimant had also testified that he filed a grievance on December 26, 1998 regarding the lack of a cover on the light in his cell. This grievance provided Defendant with specific notice of the defect.
[4] All motions not previously ruled upon are deemed denied.