New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

RAVENELL v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-029-092, Claim No. 97691


Prisoner was electrocuted when slipped on an allegedly wet floor and fell into a water fountain, on top of which was sitting a coffee pot, which was plugged into the electrical outlet. No proof that floor was wet or that State was aware of condition. Water fountain not leaking and coffee pot was not a "dangerous condition". Claim dismissed.

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:
Bennet Goodman, Esq.
Defendant's attorney:
Hon. Eliot Spitzer
Attorney General of the State of New YorkBy: Michael Zeytoonian, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
August 7, 2001
White Plains

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

This claim for personal injuries arises from an incident that occurred on April 20, 1997 in Housing Unit 8-1 at Fishkill Correctional Facility (hereinafter Fishkill). The trial was bifurcated and this decision deals only with the issue of liability.

Claimant testified that he arrived at Fishkill from Downstate Correctional Facility on April 10, 1997 and was housed in Housing Unit (hereinafter H.U.) 8-1 from that date to the date of the accident, April 20, 1997. Claimant stated that the housing unit had a wall-mounted water fountain and its surface was approximately three to four feet from the floor (see Exhibits 1 and 3); that located to the right of the water fountain[1]
, sitting on an upside down desk drawer, was a hot pot (Exhibit A) in which inmates were permitted to heat water for instant coffee or tea. Between April 10th and 20th, 1997, he used the pot approximately five times to get hot water for tea. Claimant stated that he knew the hot pot had wires coming out of its side and had no adapter on the end of these wires. He could see the wires were adapted so that the pot would work, but was not aware that the wires were faulty. He stated that the only problem he noticed was that silicone was placed around the nozzle of the pot to stop a drip. He did not report the condition of the pot to any officer because he feared it would be taken out of service causing him a problem with the other inmates.
Claimant testified that: On April 20, 1997, he left the unit to go to recreation and lunch, returning at approximately 2:15 pm. Prior to his leaving the H.U., the hot pot was located in its usual position, next to the water fountain and atop the upside down desk drawer. Indeed, until the incident, this was the only location where the claimant had ever seen the pot. Upon returning from recreation and lunch however, claimant noticed that someone had placed the pot on top of the water fountain. At approximately 2:30 pm he decided to get a cup of tea. He took a makeshift cup, put a tea bag in it and approached the hot pot. As he approached he alleges he slipped on a puddle of water which had built up just in front of the water fountain. He grabbed the fountain in an attempt to steady himself and, in so doing, apparently knocked one of the live clips attached to the hot pot onto the surface of the fountain and was jolted with electricity. Upon receiving the electrical jolt, the claimant fell backwards, was rendered unconscious and sustained injuries as a result. Claimant was taken by stretcher to the facility hospital.

Claimant testified that during the 11 days he was assigned to H.U. 8-1, a towel was often positioned on the floor near the fountain to soak up water and that inmates would often mop the floor in that area so he assumed the water fountain had a leak. However, he did not see a leak coming from the bottom of the fountain. He further stated that at the time he slipped on April 20, 1997 he did not see any water on the floor. He believes he fell on water because when he regained consciousness in the Fishkill infirmary the soles of his slippers and the bottom of his socks were still wet.

Correction Officer (C.O.) Frank Calarco was called by the claimant. C.O. Calarco testified that he is employed by the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) and is assigned to Fishkill. On April 20, 1997 he was assigned to supervise H.U. 8-1 from 6:30 am to 2:30 pm. The witness stated that there were 25 inmates in H.U. 8-1 and he was the only C.O. assigned to the Unit during his shift. He further stated that he was aware there was a hot pot on the unit for the inmates' use; that as he walked around the housing unit "he saw the pot and about one-half of the electrical plug. The remainder of it was in the hot pot's electrical connection".[2]

C.O. Calarco testified that the accident involving claimant occurred at about 2:25 pm during the shift change. He was being relieved by C.O. Valhos and they were both in the unit's office when he heard a banging noise out in the unit but C.O. Calarco didn't see anything because C.O. Valhos was standing in front of him and blocked his view. He did, however, see claimant fall backwards and land on the floor on his back with his arms outstretched. The witness did not recall seeing any water on the floor of the housing unit between 10:00 am and 2:25 pm on the date of claimant's accident.

On cross-examination, C.O. Calarco did not recall seeing any water on the floor of the unit by or under the water fountain prior to April 20, 1997. He also stated it was not part of his duties to inspect the hot pot, he never used the hot pot, it was for the inmates and thus, prior to this incident, he was not familiar with the condition of the hot pot.

Claimant introduced into evidence (as Exhibit 18) the deposition transcript of C.O. Valhos. The witness testified that at the time of claimant's accident he was a relief officer and had worked in H.U. 8-1 about four or five times prior to the date of this incident. He never saw water on the floor near the water fountain nor did he ever see water leaking from the hot pot prior to April 20, 1997. He further stated that, prior to the date of this incident, the end of the cord which plugged into the pot always had the adapter on it. He never saw just the wires attached to the pot. If he had, he would have confiscated the hot pot because it was not in its original condition. This confirms claimant's testimony and supplies motivation for inmates to hide the tampering from the correction officers. He further stated that he does not recall ever seeing the hot pot sitting on top of the water fountain.

Claimant also called Shawn Deragon, a plumber at Fishkill to testify about the water fountain and records of complaints about the fountain. Based on the documentation, there were three complaints about the water fountain on H.U. 8-1 in the year prior to the incident - April 16, 1996, February 5, 1997 and February 19, 1997. Deragon's understanding of the problems and repairs was based on the records. The work request dated April 16, 1996 (Exhibit 11) indicated that the work on the water fountain had been completed. The work request dated February 5, 1997 (Exhibit 12) indicated that a replacement of a cartridge for the water fountain was needed and that that job was completed. The work request for February 19, 1997 (Exhibit 13) indicated that the fountain was checked and that it was OK.

Mr. Deragon explained that with respect to the February 5, 1997 replacement of the cartridge, a faulty cartridge would not result in any leak from the bottom or outside of the fountain. The cartridge controlled the flow of the water from the faucet and any leak would result in water dribbling out of the faucet area and into the recessed bowl of the fountain, not a leak outside. Thus, he concluded, that problem would not cause a leak which would result in any puddling under the fountain.

Mr. Deragon explained that with respect to the February 19, 1997 request (Exhibit 13), the entry of the words "job checked OK" typically meant that a worker had checked the fountain and determined it did not need repair.

Sergeant John Dieckmann was called by claimant. The witness stated that he is employed by DOCS and was so employed on April 20, 1997 at Fishkill. He testified that he is familiar with H.U. 8-1 and was there once approximately every two weeks. He explained that part of a housing unit officer's job is to make sure there are no dangerous conditions in his/her unit. The officer has a duty to remedy any dangerous conditions he/she becomes aware of regardless of how the condition was created.

Sergeant Dieckmann further testified that on April 20, 1997 he was the supervisor of H.U. 8-1. Upon responding to the unit, he observed that the hot pot was on the bed nearest the water fountain. There was some water on the floor and there was also broken wood on the floor. He stated his belief that the hot pot had been located on the wood before it had been broken and he didn't know how the hot pot got on the bed. He also noticed that the hot pot's electrical connection had been altered (see Exhibit 7).

On cross-examination, Sergeant Dieckmann testified that prior to April 20, 1997 when he had been to H.U. 8-1 he had always seen the hot pot located next to the water fountain, never sitting on the water fountain. He also stated that if he had seen the altered wiring on the hot pot prior to this incident, he would have confiscated the pot for repair or replacement. He stated that he never received a complaint about the hot pot leaking or the wiring of the pot. The witness further testified, that based upon his investigation of the incident, he concluded that claimant was attempting to fill the pot with water without unplugging it from the wall and got shocked.

The transcript of the deposition of Fishkill Fire and Safety Officer John S. Smith was received into evidence (see Exhibit 19). Officer Smith stated that he has been the Fire and Safety Officer at Fishkill since 1983. He conducted an investigation regarding this incident and in his report to Captain Loury dated April 22, 1997 (Exhibit 9) concluded:

"It appears that the wiring to the coffee pot had been modified. The correct plastic plug had been removed and not replaced. Electric plug was just modified with two (2) open connections causing plug, over time, to short out."

At his deposition, C.O. Smith stated that if the wire broke off from the hot pot and touched the water fountain, it could have shorted out but the circuit breaker should have then cut off the electrical current to that outlet, as a circuit breaker is connected to the outlet (Exhibit 19, Pages 18-19). He further testified that he is not aware if anyone ever inspected the outlet to see if the circuit breaker was faulty.

Sergeant Griffin Graham was called as a witness by the State. Sergeant Graham testified that he is employed at Fishkill and that in April, 1997, he was a staff advisor to the Inmate Liaison Committee (ILC) at Fishkill. Sergeant Graham stated that the ILC was responsible for ordering small appliances for use by the inmates in their housing units which were paid for with the money collected from the Visitors' Room vending machines. The inmates were responsible for maintenance, storage, cleaning and control of these appliances which included hot pots. The witness further stated that if an appliance is broken and needs to be replaced, an inmate or a housing unit correction officer can request a new one, however, the old appliance must be returned before a new one is given to the housing unit. He further stated that if he had seen this hot pot (Exhibit A), he would have confiscated it immediately because it had been altered and in his opinion was hazardous.

The State also called Sergeant John Gaudioso as a witness. Sergeant Gaudioso testified that he was employed as a correction officer on April 20, 1997 at Fishkill. On that date he was the Deputy Fire Chief on duty. He investigated the incident involving claimant, prepared a report (Exhibit 8) and took photographs of the hot pot and water fountain (Exhibits 1 - 5). When he arrived at the housing unit the pot was on a bed and he does not recall seeing any water on the floor when he arrived.

The witness stated that during his investigation he noticed burn marks on the water fountain and concluded that the hot pot was tipped over and the adapter outlets on the pot hit the water fountain causing the claimant's injuries. This witness also stated that if he had received a complaint or seen this hot pot with the altered wiring, he would have removed it from the unit as he considers it dangerous. He further stated that prior to April 20, 1997 he never received a complaint about water puddling by the water fountain on H.U. 8-1.

When it acts as a property owner, the State is held to the same standard of care as any private landowner (
Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233; Preston v State of New York, 59 NY2d 997). The State must act as a reasonable person in maintaining its property 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 (Miller v State of New York, 62 NY2d 506). Such standard of care applies to the premises within prison facilities (Bowers v State of New York, 241 AD2d 760; Condon v State of New York, 193 AD2d 874). But the State is not an insurer, and negligence may not be inferred solely from the happening of an accident (Killeen v State of New York, 66 NY2d 850; Tripoli v State of New York, 72 AD2d 823; Mochen v State of New York, 57 AD2d 719). To prevail on his claim, claimant must establish by a fair preponderance of the evidence that the State breached its duty of care by creating, or having actual or constructive notice of, a foreseeably dangerous condition; failing to take steps to correct, or at least neutralize, the dangerous condition within a reasonable time that such condition was a proximate cause of claimant's accident and that claimant sustained damages as a result of this condition (see, Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836; Ligon v Waldbaum, Inc., 234 AD2d 347). Constructive notice applies if a defect is visible and apparent and had existed for a sufficient period of time for the defendant to discover and remedy the condition before the accident occurred (Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, supra).
First, the Court will deal with the issue of the allegedly wet floor which caused claimant to fall into the water fountain. Claimant attempted to establish that the water fountain was leaking, that the State was aware of the condition, and that this condition caused claimant to slip and fall. However, claimant has failed to prove any dangerous condition existed at the time of the accident or any time at least one year prior to it. The maintenance work requests submitted into evidence show three complaints in the year prior to claimant's accident with prompt and appropriate responses, including one where there was no problem or leak at all as the note relates "Job Checked OK" (Exhibits 11, 12 and 13).

Furthermore, based on the testimony of claimant and four State employees, there where no prior complaints about either the water fountain leaking or water puddles in H.U. 8-1, nor had there been any prior incidents of anyone slipping or falling on the unit because of puddles in the area of the water fountain. Claimant testified that he never saw any leaking or puddling on the day of the incident and could only assume there was water because he saw a towel under a bed, which was, by his own testimony, six feet away from the place he says he slipped. The Court does not find claimant's testimony that inmates were continually mopping the area around the water fountain and placing towels on the floor to soak up water to be credible based upon the total testimony received at trial. Thus, we find that claimant failed to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the State had actual or constructive notice of a leak in the water fountain prior to claimant's accident.

In addition, we find that claimant failed to establish by a preponderance of the credible evidence that he did indeed slip on a wet floor. Both C.O. Calarco and C.O. Valhos testified that they never saw water on the floor of the unit near the water fountain on April 20, 1997 or on any date prior thereto while they were working on the unit. In addition, claimant stated he did not see water on the floor prior to his fall, but knew the floor was wet because when he regained consciousness after the incident his slippers were wet, as were the bottom of his socks. Based upon the testimony adduced at trial, the Court cannot conclude from the fact that claimant's socks and slippers were wet after the incident that the floor was wet prior to the incident. Sergeant Dieckmann testified that the hot pot was on a bed when he arrived after the incident and that the bed and floor were wet. It is entirely possible that when claimant touched the water fountain, the hot pot tipped or fell over causing the water to spill out on the floor as claimant fell, thus getting his slippers and socks wet.

arguendo that the floor was wet and caused claimant to fall into the water fountain, we find that claimant failed to establish by a preponderance of the credible evidence that the floor was wet as a result of any negligence on the part of the State.
We now turn to the issue of the hot pot. As stated above (at Page 8), the claimant must establish that the State either created or had actual or constructive notice of a foreseeably dangerous condition. To constitute constructive notice, a defect must be visible and apparent and must exist for a sufficient length of time prior to the accident to permit defendant to discover and remedy it (
Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836, supra). Here, claimant offered no proof that the State created the condition or had actual notice of the allegedly dangerous condition of the hot pot. Quite to the contrary, the evidence suggests that the inmates would take steps to hide it from the correction officers. Correction Officers Calarco, Valhos and Sergeant Dieckmann testified that they never saw the "altered" plug prior to claimant's accident. They also stated that the "altered" condition of the plug was never reported to them. Regarding constructive notice, claimant testified he arrived at Fishkill and was assigned to H.U. 8-1 on April 10, 1997 and that he noticed the condition of the wire about two days later; that is, he noticed the end of the electrical cord which plugged into the hot pot had been altered in that two wire connectors which had been previously covered with a plastic adapter were now exposed and attached to the hot pot. He stated that he did not know the wires were faulty but could see the cord was altered so that the hot pot would work. He also candidly stated that he did not report this situation to Fishkill staff because the hot pot would be confiscated if staff saw it was altered; that if the other inmates found out he reported the situation to staff and the hot pot was confiscated, it may have created a problem for him with his fellow inmates.
Based upon the testimony adduced at trial, we find that claimant failed to establish by a preponderance of the credible evidence that the State had constructive notice of the condition of the hot pot as it appears that the defect was not visible and apparent. Claimant stated he was aware that if he reported the condition of the hot pot to Fishkill staff, the hot pot would be removed from the housing unit. Thus, it is easy for the Court to conclude that all the inmates housed in this unit who were aware of the condition of the hot pot cord did not want the facility staff to become aware of the condition for fear they would lose their ability to have ready access to hot water and thus attempted to conceal or hide the condition from the State's employees by turning the pot so the Fishkill staff could not see the portion of the plug which connected to the pot.

In addition, while the correction officers who testified at trial and viewed the hot pot (Exhibit A) stated had they seen this pot prior to the incident they would have confiscated it because it had been altered and appeared to be hazardous, claimant presented no evidence from an electrician or other expert that the hot pot cord without the plastic housing covering the two clips which connected to the pot was indeed a dangerous condition. Thus, we find claimant failed to establish the existence of a dangerous condition.

In his post-trial memorandum of law, claimant's counsel has also argued that the Court should find liability against the State based upon the doctrine of
res ipsa loquitur. In New York, the following elements must be established in order for this doctrine to apply: (1) the event must be a kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone's negligence; (2) it must be caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant; and (3) it must not have been due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff (see, Kambat v St. Francis Hosp., 89 NY2d 489, 494; Dermatossian v New York City Transit Authority, 67 NY2d 219, 226). Only when all of these elements are established can this doctrine be applied.
Counsel asserts:

"A separate issue is raised by Fire and Safety Officer John Smith's telling admission that ‘circuit breakers' attached to the wall outlet in the 8-1 housing unit should have prevented the claimant from being jolted with electricity, had they been working properly. (Deposition of Fire and Safety Officer Smith, Page 19 [Exhibit 19]). Such admission obviously reveals an independent proximate cause of the claimant's injuries. As to this matter, the doctrine of "
res ipsa loquiter" [sic] is applicable." (Claimant's Memorandum of Law, Page 11).

The Court notes that at his deposition, C.O. Smith was asked if he had knowledge of electrical related objects which may cause fires and he responded "[n]o. I am not an electrician." (Exhibit 19, Page 6).
The following colloquy took place between claimant's counsel and C.O. Smith at the deposition (Exhibit 19, Pages 18 and 19):
Q. ab Here's my question: I was thinking about your conclusion of shorting out and you also saw this report at some point. It talks about sparks flying.

Is that consistent, the sparks flying, with your earlier conclusion that this had shorted out in some way?

A. ab It's possible.

Q. ab Would that be if a circuit was somehow completed? How would the sparks fly if something was shorted out?

A. ab I'm not an electrician.

Q. ab You said "it's possible." What do you mean by that, "it's possible"?

A. ab Again, it if was shorted out, if the wire broke off and touched the electrical or touched the water fountain, it could have shorted or enough where it - - it came in contact now became again, you could have possibly got a short.

Q. ab So if it was completed somehow?

A. ab Right, but at that same time, too, circuit breakers should have kicked, also.

Q. ab What is a circuit breaker?

A. ab That's an electrical - - what's the word I'm looking for? Cutoff.

Q. ab Would that be connected to the coffee pot?

A. ab No, to the outlet.

Q. ab The outlet itself would presumably have something that would stop that?

A. ab Right.

Claimant did not present any evidence from an electrician that the circuit breakers did indeed fail or that the hot pot shorted out as C.O. Smith stated was a possibility (see, Exhibit 19, Pages 18 and 19). Further, there was no proof offered by claimant to establish that a circuit breaker's failure ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone's negligence. Thus, we find that the doctrine of
res ipsa loquitur is inapplicable to the present situation.
We find that claimant has failed to establish by a preponderance of the credible evidence that his injuries were caused by any failure to comply with a duty of care on the part of the State. Accordingly, the claim is hereby dismissed. The Chief Clerk is directed to enter judgment accordingly.

August 7, 2001
White Plains, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] As one stands in front of the fountain.
[2] From the trial transcript tape, Tape Number 1 at LED 1580.