New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

GONZALEZ v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2002-009-107, Claim No. 97973


Claimant sought damages in this claim for personal injuries suffered by him when he fell from a forklift on which he was riding, which occurred while claimant was incarcerated at Auburn Correctional Facility, alleging that the State failed to provide him with a safe workplace. The Court found that the claimant had received adequate training for the performance of his assigned duties, that he was provided with sufficient notice regarding safety procedures, and that adequate supervision had been provided. The claim was 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:
BY: Michael P. Kenny, Esq.,Of Counsel.
Defendant's attorney:
Attorney General
BY: Gordon J. Cuffy, Esq.,
Assistant Attorney GeneralOf Counsel.
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
September 19, 2002

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

In this claim, claimant seeks to recover for personal injuries allegedly suffered by him when he was struck by a forklift at Auburn Correctional Facility
on December 23, 1997. The trial of this claim was bifurcated and this decision deals solely with the issue of liability.
At the time of the accident, claimant, an inmate at Auburn Correctional Facility, was assigned as a "runner"[1]
to the "Industry Storehouse" at the facility pursuant to a work program. As a "runner", claimant's specific job duties required him to fill orders for materials needed in the various inmate work programs at the facility. He had been at this assignment for approximately five months before the incident in question occurred. According to trial testimony from claimant, he was riding on one of the Storehouse's forklifts, driven by fellow inmate Endeni Montes, when he fell off the side and his leg was drawn into the wheel well, resulting in a compound fracture to his ankle.
Claimant maintains that the State violated its duty to provide him with a safe workplace. Specifically, this claim is based upon allegations that the State failed to provide claimant with proper and adequate training on forklift machinery, and that the State failed to supervise claimant during his work program.

The State is not an insurer of inmate safety, nor is it bound by the restrictions and directives of the Labor Law (
Maldonado v State of New York, 255 AD2d 630). However, when the State directs an inmate to perform work, it is bound to provide that inmate with a reasonably safe work environment (Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910). In this regard, the State owes a duty to provide its inmates with reasonably safe machinery and equipment, together with proper instructions and warnings for the safe use of that equipment (Kandrach v State of New York, supra, Palmisano v State of New York, 47 AD2d 692).
In this case, the operational integrity of the forklift on which claimant was riding is not in question. Anthony Rebich, the civilian supervisor of the Storehouse, and claimant's immediate supervisor, stated in his deposition that he used this specific forklift the same day of the incident (after claimant was injured), and that it was in proper working order.[2]
Mr. Rebich found no malfunctions with the forklift then, and in addition, testified that each forklift receives routine maintenance every few months. It is clear, therefore, that the forklift provided by the State for inmate use was in good working order, and in no way contributed to the injuries suffered by claimant.
Claimant, however, asserts that the State was negligent in failing to properly train him in the operation and use of this forklift. As previously stated, claimant was employed as a "runner" in the Storehouse, and he had admittedly received training as such. Claimant's duties as a "runner" required the use of both manual and electric pallet jacks, and he had been trained in the operation of these jacks.

Testimony from both claimant and Mr. Rebich established that claimant had not received any training at the facility in the operation of a forklift. However, claimant was not required, or authorized, to operate a forklift in connection with his duties as a "runner".

Based on the above testimony, the Court finds that claimant had been properly trained by facility staff in the use and operation of all equipment required for the performances of his assigned job as a "runner", and the failure to train claimant in the operation of a forklift (which was not required or permitted in his assigned job) cannot be considered a proximate cause of his injuries.

Furthermore, it is important to note that this accident occurred while Inmate Montes, and not claimant, was operating the forklift. Any liability for improper training must therefore be predicated on the training, or lack thereof, received by Mr. Montes. However, testimony conclusively established that Inmate Montes, who had been assigned duties as a forklift operator, had received training as such.[3]

The Court therefore finds that there was no evidence to suggest that this accident resulted from a failure to adequately train claimant in the performance of his assigned duties, or from a failure to adequately train Inmate Montes in the operation of a forklift.

Additionally, the Court finds that claimant was provided with sufficient training and notice regarding general safety procedures in the Storehouse.

According to Mr. Rebich's deposition, all inmates, including claimant, were apprised of the Storehouse regulations upon entering the work program. Additionally, Mr. Rebich testified[4]
that inmates, including claimant, were given verbal orders prohibiting them from riding on any of the forklifts used in the Storehouse. Claimant was therefore aware of the basic rules and regulations of the Storehouse, one of which specifically prohibited inmates from riding on forklifts. Furthermore, several warning stickers were attached to the forklift, in plain sight, which provided additional reminders to would-be riders of the dangers involved.[5]
Claimant also asserts that the State was negligent in it supervision of claimant. The adequacy of the State's supervision of its inmates is often at issue when an inmate is injured in the course of his work duties at a facility. As previously stated, inmates in claimant's work program were supervised by Mr. Rebich. He testified that in a typical eight hour shift, he would spend approximately five to six hours in his office, with the balance of his time on the floor of the Storehouse.[6]
This office is located approximately 15 feet from the site of the incident.[7]
In his deposition testimony, Mr. Rebich stated that he advised claimant not to ride double on the forklift when he began working at the Storehouse. He also testified that prior to this accident, he had not observed any inmates riding double during the approximately five months that claimant had been assigned to his program.

Despite the verbal warning given to him by Mr. Rebich, as well as the numerous warning signs placed in clear view on the forklift itself, claimant ignored these warnings when he decided to ride on the forklift on the day of the accident.

The State does not have a duty to provide uninterrupted supervision of its inmates, including those in a work program (
Colon v State of New York, 209 AD2d 842; Katzman v State of New York, Claim No. 93802 [Ct. Cl. 2001]). In this case, the Court finds that the actions of Mr. Gonzalez which caused his injuries were not condoned by Mr. Rebich or any other facility staff, and that adequate supervision had been provided by Mr. Rebich.
Furthermore, the Court must note that it was not impressed with the credibility of claimant. As previously stated herein, claimant testified at trial that he slipped off the forklift and fractured his ankle when his leg was caught in the wheel well. However, immediately following the accident, claimant had given a statement to a facility nurse that he had been run over by the forklift as he was standing next to it,[8]
and he repeated this statement, under oath, at his subsequent deposition.[9]
Therefore, if the Court accepts claimant's earlier version of the events, (i.e. , that he was standing beside the forklift when he was run over), he clearly would have no claim for improper training or lack of supervision. Conversely, if the Court were to accept claimant's testimony given at trial as to how the accident occurred (which it has in fact accepted), claimant's prior inconsistent statements, at a minimum, imply an awareness on his part that his actions in riding double were in violation of facility rules.

In summary, Mr. Gonzalez had never been trained at Auburn Correctional Facility in the operation of forklifts, and in fact he was forbidden from their use. The forklift itself was not defective in any way, and any alleged lack of proper supervision had no bearing on this incident. Mr. Gonzalez took it upon himself to disobey general and specific Storehouse regulations, a verbal warning, and caution signs on the forklift, when he decided to ride on the forklift clearly designed for only one passenger. Therefore, the Court finds that it was Mr. Gonzalez's own conduct which was the proximate cause of his injuries.

Accordingly, claimant's claim against the defendant State is hereby DISMISSED.

Any motions not heretofore ruled upon are hereby denied.


September 19, 2002
Syracuse, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all references and quotations are taken either from the Court's audiotapes of the trial, or the Court's trial notes.
[2] See Exhibit 1, Deposition Transcript of Anthony Michael Rebich, page 32.
See Exhibit A, Auburn Correctional Facility Program, signed by Endeni Montes on June 11, 1997.
[4] See Exhibit 1, p. 13.
[5] See Exhibits G through P.
[6] See Exhibit 1, p. 26.
[7] See Exhibit 1, pg. 7.
[8] See Exhibit A.
[9] See Exhibit F, p. 9.