New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

PAMIAS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-029-050, Claim No. 95497


Prisoner - working in the chair shop. Injured while using power tool. The Court finds improper training and supervision. State 60% liable, claimant 40% liable (was using tool without safety guard in place). Liability only.

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:
Michael J. O'Connor, Esq.
Defendant's attorney:
Hon. Eliot Spitzer
Attorney General of the State of New YorkBy: John M. Healey, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
February 6, 2001
White Plains

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


The claimant, an inmate at the Green Haven Correctional Facility at the time of his injury, brings this claim against the State for injuries resulting from his use of a power tool in the prison woodworking shop. This trial was bifurcated and the liability portion was held on January 8, 2001. The salient facts in the case at bar are essentially undisputed.

The claimant testified that in January, 1996, while incarcerated at Green Haven Correctional Facility (hereinafter Green Haven), he was assigned to work in the prison "chair shop". He testified that he enjoyed the work and was interested in learning the vocational skills taught therein.

Claimant further testified as to the job training program in the woodworking shop. Essentially, this training involved an initial 15 minute conference with the shop supervisor who apparently told claimant to watch the other inmates. It appears that this salubrious instruction represents the sum total of organized training in the facility. Over the course of the next five months, claimant did indeed learn to work on various power tools by watching other inmates.

On May 8, 1996, claimant was engaged in woodwork using a tool known as a shaper. This is a tool with a rotating blade which bevels or cuts edges of wood members. While working with the shaper that morning, claimant sustained an injury when the blade of the shaper pulled the wood material and thereby cut claimant's hand. Allegedly, this resulted in the severance of a portion of his fingertip on the little finger of his left hand which resulted in a skin graft, an infection and removal of the fingernail (Exh. 1, Paragraph 4).

On cross-examination, the claimant acknowledged signing an instruction sheet which was given to him on his first day at the chair shop (see Exh. 9). At trial, the defendant emphasized instruction number 6 which cautioned claimant not to operate any machine unless assigned to it and "properly instructed". In the State's view, claimant violated this instruction and thereby assumed the risk of all injuries which occurred at the shop. No evidence was submitted regarding the criteria of "proper instruction" and no evidence was submitted demonstrating claimant was ever properly instructed on
any machine.
Corroborating the testimony of the claimant, the documentary evidence submitted in the course of the trial clearly established that claimant was assigned to the chair shop and worked there from January 1996 until the date of the incident on May 8, 1996. He was an ambitious and hardworking member of the shop and did, in fact, incur an injury in the use of the shaper on May 8
, 1996 (see Exhs. 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11 and 12).
The defendant called one witness, Mr. Burton Heldron, the Industrial Training Supervisor at Green Haven. Mr. Heldron has supervised the chair shop since 1995.

The Court finds Mr. Heldron to be a believable and admirably candid witness. His testimony confirms the essential points of claimant's testimony, specifically the fact that claimant was given no formal training on any power machine and was expected to learn solely by watching other inmates at each machine.

Mr. Heldron testified that on May 8, 1996, he observed an injury to the claimant resulting from the shaper and sent the claimant to the prison infirmary for treatment. He subsequently wrote a disciplinary ticket charging claimant with unauthorized use of the shaper [1]
(Exh. A). Mr. Heldron also testified that claimant was using the shaper on May 8, 1996 without benefit of the safety guard which should have been installed on the machine and that claimant was wearing gloves when using the shaper, which both parties agreed created an unnecessary hazzard. Mr. Heldron drew these conclusions from observing the safety guard on the floor subsequent to the injury and by observing a pair of gloves at the machine with a piece torn out of an area corresponding to claimant's injury. Given this Court's finding as to Mr. Heldron's credibility, the Court believes that the Claimant did in fact use the shaper while wearing gloves and without a safety guard in place. However, the Court finds that these actions on the part of claimant are a contributing cause, but not a superceding cause of his injuries (Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910; Hicks v State of New York, 124 AD2d 949).
Mr. Heldron also testified, confirming the documentary evidence, that the claimant was a well-behaved, hard-working member of the chair shop who was very interested in learning the various woodworking skills involved. In fact, the noted disciplinary complaint is the first evidence of any problem with claimant during the period of January to May, 1996.

Finally, although Mr. Heldron testified that claimant was not authorized to use the shaper, he further testified on cross-examination that he had never specifically authorized claimant to use any machine in the shop and that it was not his custom and practice to authorize or memorialize any of his instructions in writing. Thus, the Court, and presumably claimant, are at a certain loss to determine which machines claimant was authorized to use and which he was not. While the Court can certainly understand a certain informality in a work place setting in this regard, these facts do not persuade the Court that the claimant willfully and knowingly undertook unauthorized conduct.

When the State, through its correctional authorities, directs a prison inmate to participate in a work program, it owes a duty to provide not only reasonably safe machinery and equipment with which to work, but also adequate warnings, instructions and supervision for the safe operation of such machinery and equipment (
Kandrach v State of New York, supra; Hicks v State of New York, supra; Palmisano v State of New York, 47 AD2d 692; Callahan v State of New York, 19 AD2d 437, affd 14 NY2d 662; Fitzgerald v State of New York, 28 Misc 2d 283). Liability has been found in many unreported decisions of this Court involving machinery and equipment in correctional institutions where the State had failed to implement its required duties to inmates (see, Slaughter v State of New York, filed October 19, 1998, Claim No. 90045, Ruderman, J.; Sanabria v State of New York, filed September 30, 1997, Claim No. 87278, Bell, J.; Santiago v State of New York, filed August 19, 1997, Claim No. 79562, Corbett, J.; Torres v State of New York, filed June 24, 1994, Claim No. 81711, Mega, J.; Moore v State of New York, filed June 8, 1993, Claim No. 77426, NeMoyer, J.; Araut v State of New York, filed July 22, 1992, Claim No. 78411, Lyons, J.; Miner v State of New York, filed April 6, 1992, Claim No. 76641, McMahon, J.; Brown v State of New York, filed December 31, 1991, Claim No. 73718, Margolis, J., affd 184 AD2d 126, lv denied 81 NY2d 711; Slepinski v State of New York, filed June 13, 1988, Claim No. 70581, Corbett, J.).
At this point, the Court will consider the State's motion to invoke collateral estoppel as to "unauthorized use." In
Kaufman v Eli Lilly and Co. (65 NY2d 449, 455-456), the Court of Appeals elucidated the requirements for the application of collateral estoppel:
There are now but two requirements which must be satisfied before the doctrine is invoked. First, the identical issue necessarily must have been decided in the prior action and be decisive of the present action, and second, the party to be precluded from relitigating the issue must have had a full and fair opportunity to contest the prior determination (id.) [see also,
D'Arata v New York Cent. Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 76 NY2d 659, 664].

In the case at bar, the gravamen of the claim is that the training and supervision afforded to the claimant by the defendant was insufficient. This is entirely different from the issue decided in the administrative proceeding which found claimant guilty of unauthorized use of machine. Even accepting that determination as final, it is not dispositive of the issues in this case since unauthorized use, which might be seen as a contributing factor, would not bar recovery arising out of the State's negligent supervision of training. Thus, the Court finds that the issues which were litigated in the administrative proceeding are in no way identical to the issues in the case
sub judice. Further, the Court is not at all satisfied that the administrative proceeding, with its relaxed rules of evidence and less formal nature, fulfills the requirement of a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue of unauthorized use. It is noted that the administrative proceeding lasted for a total of 17 minutes (see Exh. A, Pg. 5), that there was no opportunity for claimant to cross-examine the person bringing the charge (see Burt Heldron's testimony that he did not attend the disciplinary proceeding) and there was no judicial review of the determination by the hearing officer. While this Court may defer to an administrative finding, it is not obligated to accept the same for judicial purposes. Therefore, the State's motion to invoke collateral estoppel is denied.
Finally, although it is well settled that the State and Department of Correctional Services are not bound by the Labor Law in operating industrial facilities (
see, D'Argenio v Village of Homer, 202 AD2d 883), the Court does not believe that the defendant's rather cavalier training program in the use of dangerous equipment would be considered adequate in the private sector.
On the basis of all the above, this Court finds that the State did not fulfill its duty of adequate instructions and warning in the instant matter and, as a result, defendant is liable for the injuries incurred by claimant.

However, this Court also finds that claimant must assume some portion of the responsibility for his own actions in utilizing the shaper tool without a safety guard in place and in wearing gloves while doing so (which claimant agreed created a hazardous condition). As a result, this Court apportions liability in this matter to the defendant - 60% and to the claimant - 40%.

Accordingly, the Clerk of the Court shall enter an interlocutory judgment in favor of the claimant, Jose Pamias and against the defendant, State of New York apportioning liability consistent with the terms of this decision.

Upon filing this decision, the Court will set the matter down for trial on the issue of damages as soon as practical. Counsel for both sides are hereby directed to contact the Court to establish a conference date regarding outstanding discovery matters with respect to the issue of damages. Counsel are directed to consult with each other regarding potential conference dates and to contact the Court regarding same within 20 days subsequent to receipt of this decision.

February 6, 2001
White Plains, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] It is noted that the validity and motivation for this disciplinary ticket are not before this Court and are not part of this decision. Nonetheless, in view of the totality of the testimony, the Court is unpersuaded in any way by the claimant's conviction on the disciplinary charge. As discussed supra, defendant's motion to invoke collateral estoppel on this issue is denied.