New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

BENITEZ v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2002-007-583, Claim No. 95067


Claimant, an inmate, seeks damages for a severe burn to the back of his left hand sustained on November 24, 1995 when another inmate closed a press machine on claimant's hand in the prison's laundry room. Claim dismissed.

Case Information

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Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

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Signature date:
January 17, 2002

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See also (multicaptioned case)

Claimant Francisco Benitez, an inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility (hereinafter "Clinton"), seeks damages for a severe burn to the back of his left hand sustained on November 24, 1995. The injury occurred when another inmate closed a clothes pressing machine known as an Ajax press on claimant's hand in the laundry of the Annex of the prison. The trial was bifurcated and this decision addresses solely the issue of liability.

In his filed claim, claimant alleged that defendant disregarded its duty to provide a safe working environment by assigning inmates to work programs in dangerous and hazardous areas without regard to safety concerns; by assigning unqualified and untrained inmates to work on hazardous machines; by failing to instruct or warn inmates assigned to work in hazardous locations; and by failing to maintain safety features on such hazardous machines properly. During the course of the trial claimant focused his claim primarily upon his contention that defendant failed in its duty to maintain safety features incorporated into the subject press with the result that a severe burn to claimant's left hand occurred.

In addition to the laundry facility maintained in the main area of the prison, an additional laundry facility was located in the Annex at Clinton. The latter such facility consisted of (1) a general room in which laundry was stored, (2) an open area in which there was located two operative washers, four dryers and an extractor that spun water out of clothes taken from the washers, and (3) a press room in which three presses, two of which were operative, were used to press various items of inmate clothing, including what was referred to as prison "greens."

The subject Ajax press consisted essentially of a padded "buck" or bottom portion on which clothes were placed for pressing and a heated platen, also referred to as a "clam shell," two red buttons which, when pushed, actuated the closing of the platen onto the buck, and two green buttons, the function of which was to raise the platen after clothing placed on the buck had been pressed. In addition, certain hoses led to the press.

Hafiz Munin, the inmate who caused the platen of the press designated "3" to close on claimant's left hand, was transported from Collins Correctional Facility to testify at the trial. Before beginning to work as a press operator in the press room located in the prison's Annex, Munin had worked as a press operator in the laundry of the main facility. Initially, he began work as a porter in the Annex and was assigned as a press operator in February 1995 when the need for an operator arose. The 74-year-old claimant also worked in the laundry area of the Annex at Clinton. He testified that he began to work in the laundry area in February 1995. His duties consisted of drying inmate green clothing, sheets and pillowcases in a dryer, folding the sheets and pillowcases and wheeling inmate green clothing in a cart to the press room for ironing.

Munin, in describing the operation of the subject press, testified that after pants and shirts were lined up on the padded buck, he would press two red buttons to make the press operate. After the clothes were pressed, he would engage a green button on the left side of the machine to release the platen. Initially, he stated that the press normally opened "on its own,"[1]
but that if it did not open, it was necessary to "press the green button." Thereafter, however, he related that after the platen reached the buck, it was necessary for the operator to press a green button for the platen to raise.
In describing the events on the morning of claimant's injury, Munin testified that he entered the press room about 8 a.m. and began operating the subject press about 9:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. Munin alleged that claimant, who also worked in the laundry area, entered the press room with personal shirts in his hand shortly before he was injured and requested Munin to press the shirts. Allegedly, Munin told claimant to place the shirts on a "horse" behind Munin. The witness indicated that he probably had four shirts on the press when claimant approached him. He related that he continued to stand as he and claimant talked. He testified that he pushed the "knobs for the press to do down" while claimant stood to his right side. He then asserted that when the press (platen) went down, claimant began screaming that his hand was stuck in the press. Continuing his testimony, Munin stated that he "tried to pump the machine" so as to release claimant's hand but that "the press would not open right away." He further asserted that it took "a minute or so" for the press to open and that he could then smell claimant's skin that had burned. He estimated that the incident occurred about 11:30 a.m.

The gravamen of claimant's contention that defendant failed in its duty to maintain safety features incorporated into the subject press rests upon the alleged failure of the platen to raise immediately upon its contacting claimant's left hand, the alleged failure of the platen to raise after Munin had removed his fingers from the red buttons and the failure of the green button(s), when pushed by Munin, to cause the platen to release immediately. Munin suggested that certain tears in hoses leading to the press ordinarily resulted in its being necessary for him to "pump the machine" to cause the platen of the press to open. He urged that during the usual operation of the press it would take the press about 30 seconds to one and one-half minutes "to come back up." The witness also testified that several times before the day of claimant's injury he had advised C.O. David Baker, the correction officer in charge of the laundry in the Annex at Clinton, of tears in the hoses of the press and was told by the officer to tape the tears.

On cross-examination, Munin acknowledged that Baker had advised him that safety was the basic rule for operation of the press. Defendant also introduced a safety bulletin (Exhibit C) executed by Munin that contained admonitions such as "THERE IS NO SAFE-GUARD AGAINST CARELESSNESS," "CARELESSNESS WILL CAUSE INJURY" and the instruction, "When operating a machine or power tool, watch what you are doing." Munin alleged, however, that before the subject incident happened he was looking at the press before pushing the red buttons to activate the platen and had not seen claimant's hand on any shirt resting on the buck.

When claimant testified after the examination of Munin had been concluded, he avowed that he knew how the subject press operated. He asserted that the press did not work properly before the day of his injury and that sometimes when the press operator pressed buttons, the press itself would "not go down or up." He further insisted that he had told Baker before the day of the accident that the press would not go down or up but that even after he had spoken to Baker, he continued to observe the same problem with the press. Claimant testified that on the day of his injury he had brought some personal clothes to the press room to be ironed or pressed. He specifically proclaimed that he had spoken to Munin immediately before he was injured and advised Munin to be careful because of the malfunctioning of the press. He then asserted that Munin told him that he was aware of the problem. He continued his testimony by pronouncing that "it [the problem] was a hose that they have to put tape [on]" (sic).

Although the press had been in operation for several hours on the day of claimant's injury and the testimony of both Munin and claimant's expert witness, Antonius Sabo, indicated that when the press was being operated, its buck was warm, claimant nevertheless insisted that he did not realize before his injury that his hand was on the "pad of the press." He recited that he screamed and could not extricate his hand from the press. In response to his counsel's question concerning the length of time that his left hand was caught in the press, he initially stated, "20 seconds" and then avowed, "for life." Concluding his testimony on direct examination, claimant recalled that after the incident C.O. Jeffrey Carter placed claimant's hand in cold water and brought him to the facility's clinic. On cross-examination, claimant testified that he had never told Baker that any hole existed in a hose but that Baker had brought several other inmates to fix a hole in a hose on a number of occasions. Claimant acknowledged that the press, while being operated could be very hot and that at the time of his injury he did not hear the press "go down."

When the trial began, claimant's counsel initially read portions of the pre-trial deposition of Carter, who was on duty at the time of claimant's injury and served as a relief officer for Baker, the correction officer who customarily was assigned to the laundry at the Annex. Carter's testimony revealed that although he knew on the day of the incident that two buttons should be engaged to close the subject press, he had never been trained in the use of the press. He recalled that while sitting at his desk in the laundry area, Munin brought claimant to him following the burn to claimant's hand. He acknowledged that he had never been present when any laundry presses were inspected, repaired or "maintained." When examined by defendant's counsel at the trial, Carter recalled that he had seen claimant in the laundry area previously. He recited that he had been in the press room on the morning of claimant's injury and, contrary to the testimony of Munin, asserted that he had observed two inmates operating presses. He testified that he had observed Munin operating the press designated "3" and that Munin had never complained to him concerning the operation of the press. The witness also testified that when he asked Munin what had happened, the inmate said nothing but simply smiled.

Rather than calling Baker to testify at the trial itself, claimant's counsel read certain portions of Baker's deposition taken in May 2000. Baker stated that he believed that he was first assigned to the laundry in November or December 1994 and that he is still so assigned. He related that he was not working on the day of claimant's injury and first learned of the injury when he returned to work. When defendant's counsel called Baker, the witness initially testified concerning the various rooms comprising the laundry at the Annex and the equipment contained therein. He asserted that claimant had never told him that the subject press had not been operating properly and he had never been asked by claimant to check the press. He further advised that no inmate had ever asked him to tape the hoses of any press before the subject incident. Although the subject press had two green release buttons, the witness pointed out that only one green button had to be pushed to cause the platen to raise.

In support of his contention that defendant's alleged failure to maintain certain safety features of the press constituted a proximate cause of the subject incident and the severe burn to claimant's left hand, claimant produced Antonius Sabo as an expert witness. Sabo received a Bachelor of Science degree from Alfred University in ceramic engineering. He also minored in mechanical engineering and engaged in post-graduate studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo and at Cornell University in plant operations, manufacturing and mechanical engineering. He has taught mechanical engineering, machine design and "materials" as an adjunct professor at Adirondack Community College. He possesses substantial experience in private industry and, in fact, as an employee of a manufacturing company, had worked on an Ajax press identical to the one on which claimant was injured. Relying upon
Brooks v Outboard Marine Corp. (234 F3d 89), defendant contended that Sabo's testimony should be deemed inadmissible. This court, however, concluded that the witness was well qualified to testify to the operation of the subject Ajax press and to render an opinion concerning causation. The Brooks decision is inapposite and requires no discussion.
Sabo was retained as an expert by claimant's counsel in June or July 2000. He examined the subject press at Clinton on October 24, 2000 and took photographs of the press. Several of the photographs were introduced into evidence at the trial. Sabo testified that the use of the press had been discontinued before his inspection. He recited that he measured various parts of the subject press, including linkage and an air hose coming into the press. He recalled that certain hoses going into the press were in good shape and that certain hoses leading to control valves were missing. In light of the missing hoses, the witness testified that he could not check the operation of the press. Sabo's testimony was instructive as regards the features of the subject press and its operation. He advised that the press was steam-heated and that the platen or clam shell was heated to a high temperature so that ironing or pressing could take place on the buck. He testified that the platen is the feature of the press that became hot. He described the buck as having a metal surface, a spring mattress, a screen, a thin felt pad, a thick felt pad and cotton muslin on top and as being warm to the touch when the Ajax press was being operated. He stated that the hot platen pressed moisture out of clothing placed on the buck and that the clothing was both dried and pressed at the same time.

Describing how clothing was ironed, Sabo advised that after clothing had been placed on the buck, the press operator would press two red buttons and the platen would then close on the material atop the buck. The press operator, based upon his experience with respect to the temperature of the platen and the amount of moisture in the clothing being ironed, would then hit one of the two green buttons on the front of the press, preferably the one on the left, and the platen would then open back up. In testifying further as to the mechanics of the operation of the press, Sabo advised that when the red buttons were depressed, air from a main air line was allowed to pass through control buttons to small hoses and then down into a control mechanism that straightened certain toggle linkage. He next stated that when the linkage was straight, a safety mechanism "indexed" with the toggle linkage which, in turn, allowed air to flow down through the bottom of a valve and over to a one-way cylinder. He explained that when air went into the cylinder, a ram was extended and the platen then closed. He asserted that the press operator, upon seeing the platen close upon the buck, would remove his fingers from the two red buttons and the platen would then stay down until the operator pushed one of the two green buttons, which would cause the platen to return to its original position. He also testified that if the operator removed his fingers from the two red buttons before the platen had reached the buck, the platen should have raised back up.

Sabo testified that a safety rod was incorporated into the press so that the platen would not close on anything other than clothing positioned on the buck. As regards the temperature of the platen, the witness referred to the manufacturer's specifications for the press and stated that the maximum temperature of the platen was 650 degrees Fahrenheit and the maximum steam pressure was 125 pounds per square inch (p.s.i.). Although the witness testified that the temperature of the platen of the Ajax press in the manufacturing plant in which he had been employed at one time was 400
to 450
Fahrenheit when the press was being operated, he acknowledged that he had no way of knowing the temperature of the platen of the subject Ajax press while it was being operated.

Sabo opined that the platen of the Ajax press should have opened immediately (less than a second) when one of the green buttons was pushed. He stated that if it took longer than a second for the platen to open, the press had malfunctioned. Answering a hypothetical question posed by claimant's counsel, the witness reiterated that the subject Ajax press should have opened immediately in any event upon Munin's releasing the red buttons and concluded that the press had not been properly maintained. As a causative factor in the alleged failure of the platen to open, the witness opined that the safety mechanisms of the press were not adjusted properly. Although he also recited a number of possible causes as to the alleged malfunctioning of the press, he acknowledged that since he had not seen the press in operation, his expressed opinions were based on the veracity of the testimony of witnesses; namely, claimant and Munin.

Although inmates working on jobs in correctional institutions do not receive the panoply of protections afforded by the Labor Law (
D'Argenio v Vil. of Homer, 202 AD2d 883, 884), when State correctional authorities direct a prison inmate to participate in a work program, the State nevertheless owes a duty to the inmate to provide reasonably safe machinery and equipment with which to work (Maldonado v State of New York, 255 AD2d 630; Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877; Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910). Liability has been found in many reported and unreported cases involving machinery and equipment in correctional institutions where the State had failed to implement required duties to inmates (see, e.g., Lowe v State of New York, 194 AD2d 898; Carter v State of New York, 194 AD2d 967; Hicks v State of New York, 124 AD2d 949; Sanabria v State of New York, Ct Cl, September 30, 1997 [Claim No. 87278, Bell, J.]; Santiago v State of New York, Ct Cl, August 19, 1997 [Claim No. 79562, Corbett, J.]; Torres v State of New York, Ct Cl, June 24, 1994 [Claim No. 81711, Mega, J.]).
Apart from the duties owed to inmates with respect to machinery and equipment in its correctional facilities, defendant argues that the act of claimant in placing his left hand upon the buck of the Ajax press constituted a superseding act that severed the causal nexus between defendant's alleged negligence and the injury to claimant's left hand. Indeed, our courts have determined under varying factual circumstances that a plaintiff's or claimant's reckless conduct constituted a superseding cause so as to excuse a defendant from liability predicated on negligence (
see, e.g., Egan v A. J. Constr. Corp., 94 NY2d 839; Boltax v Joy Day Camp, 67 NY2d 617; Miecznikowski v Robida, 278 AD2d 793, lv denied 96 NY2d 709; Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877, supra). If one were to accept, however, the factual scenario testified to by claimant and inmate Munin, including the alleged malfunctioning of the subject Ajax press, claimant's mere placing of his left hand on the warm buck should not be deemed a superseding cause of his injury so as to negate defendant's liability provided that it should also be concluded that the alleged negligence of defendant contributed to or exacerbated the injury to claimant's left hand (see, Gordon v Eastern Ry. Supply, 82 NY2d 555, 562; Kriz v Schum, 75 NY2d 25; Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910, supra). As cogently observed by the Third Department in the Kandrach (supra) case: "To constitute a superseding cause, the conduct of the injured party must not be merely negligent, it must be reckless, i.e., in conscious disregard of a fully appreciated risk (citations omitted)" (id., at 914). Although the court disagrees with defendant's contention that claimant's alleged act of placing his hand on the buck of the subject press constituted a superseding cause of his injury so as to mandate a dismissal of the claim, the court nevertheless declines to find defendant liable for damages resulting from the injury to claimant's left hand or any exacerbation of such injury.
Credibility is a critical issue in the claim before the court. If the version of events reported by claimant and inmate Munin rang substantially true, a percentage of liability might be assessed against defendant. Weighing evidence and assessing veracity of conflicting testimony is often an arduous task for which there is no precise or flawless test. There are no juries in the Court of Claims and therefore the court's responsibilities include deciding witness credibility and resolving factual disputes (
LeGrand v State of New York, 195 AD2d 784, lv denied 82 NY2d 663; Colangione v State of New York, 187 AD2d 844; see, Savio v State of New York, 268 AD2d 907, lv denied 95 NY2d 758). As the trial progressed, the court had an opportunity to hear and see the witnesses firsthand (see, Auger v State of New York, 263 AD2d 929; Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877, supra). Since the testimony of claimant and inmate Munin concerning the alleged malfunctioning of the Ajax press did not ring true, the court does not credit their testimony (see, Deering v Metcalf, 74 NY 501; Petrovski v Fornes, 125 AD2d 972, lv denied 69 NY2d 608; 1A PJI 1:22). The testimony of claimant and inmate Munin concerning defendant's alleged negligence appeared contrived and unworthy of belief. For example, the court carefully considered the testimony of claimant that on the day of the incident and immediately before the Ajax press closed on claimant's hand, he had advised inmate Munin to be careful because of the alleged malfunctioning of the press. Claimant's testimony concerning such alleged warning simply was not credible.
Claimant's further testimony that before he was injured he had told Baker that the Ajax press would not "go up and down" also appeared to have been carefully contrived. Such testimony was disputed by Baker and the court credits Baker's testimony in such regard. Although defendant offered no proof concerning the actual training or instruction of Munin with respect to the operation of the press, claimant did not urge or attempt to prove that defendant should be held liable on the basis of the negligence of his fellow inmate Munin (
see, Washington v State of New York, 277 App Div 1079; Cassidy v State of New York, 5 Misc 2d 835). Whether claimant's injury occurred as a result of the combined negligence of claimant and inmate Munin or as the result of an intentional act of either or both inmates need not be decided. Simply stated, claimant failed in his burden of proving negligence on the part of defendant that contributed to or exacerbated the injury to his left hand.
All motions not previously ruled upon are hereby denied.

The claim is dismissed and the Chief Clerk of the Court of Claims is directed to enter judgment accordingly.

January 17, 2002
Plattsburgh, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] All quoted references are to the court's trial notes unless otherwise indicated.