New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

MORALES v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2002-010-059, Claim No. 103503


Synopsis



Case Information

UID:
2002-010-059
Claimant(s):
EDWIN MORALES
Claimant short name:
MORALES
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
103503
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
Terry Jane Ruderman
Claimant's attorney:
NISHMAN AND SAVITSKYBy: Robert W. Nishman, Esq.
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER
Attorney General for the State of New YorkBy: Richard Lombardo, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
December 17, 2002
City:
White Plains
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision
Claimant seeks damages for injuries he sustained on September 19, 2000 during his incarceration at Sing Sing Correctional Facility (Sing Sing) when he was transported by van to St. Agnes Hospital. Claimant was restrained by shackles on his legs and handcuffs attached to a chain around his waist. The distance between the leg irons was 15 inches. At St. Agnes, the van was parked in the hospital parking lot. Correction Officer Edward Noriega stepped out of the van and placed a rectangular metal stool on the ground. The stool was 10 inches wide, 19 inches long and 10 ½ inches high (Ex. A). Claimant put one foot on the stool as he exited the van. Claimant lost his balance and fell forward onto the pavement. Claimant contends that defendant is liable for his injuries because Correction Officer Noriega failed to assist claimant as he stepped on the stool while exiting the van. The trial of this claim was bifurcated and this Decision pertains solely to the issue of liability.
Claimant testified that he was transported with three other inmates and three correction officers, Edward Noriega, Richard Williamson and Henry Brinson. Claimant stated that the van was parked in the hospital lot and was on a slant with the front of the van minimally higher than the rear. Claimant described the pavement as rocky with dirt. He placed his foot on the stool as he exited the van and, according to claimant, the stool wobbled almost immediately. He fell forward and his face and arms hit the pavement. According to claimant, none of the correction officers assisted him as he exited the van. Noriega was standing a few inches away on claimant's left. Claimant testified that after he fell, Noriega lifted claimant up by his pants. Claimant stated that the other inmates had exited before he did.
Correction Officer Brinson took
claimant to the emergency room. Claimant testified that he told the nurse that he fell stepping off the van. Claimant was then taken to the Department of Correctional Services clinic. During the examination there, claimant maintains that Brinson said that claimant had tripped over his leg irons while getting out of the van. Claimant was not sure what he had stated at the clinic. At his examination before trial, claimant indicated that he had explained what happened and was certain that he never told anyone that he had tripped over his leg chains.
When they returned to Sing Sing, Noriega took
claimant to the ambulatory health clinic where he was treated by Nurse Eugene Head. Claimant testified that Noriega told Head how the accident happened and this was accurately noted on the Inmate Injury Report "CAUSE OF INJURY: stool was unstable and leg chains kept you from correcting of balance. Only contact with CO was to assist to stand after fall" (Ex. 4). When claimant was asked in the clinic for his statement, he replied, "same as described above" which was also accurately recorded on the form (Id.). Noriega remained with claimant the entire time.
Prior to September 19, 2000,
claimant had been transported to St. Agnes in a van between six and nine times. On those other occasions, claimant was restrained in the same manner and exited the van by using a stool. Claimant stated, however, that on the prior occasions the correction officer held up his hands while claimant was on the stool. At trial, claimant testified that he did not recall whether, on the day of the accident, Noriega had his hands up before claimant had stepped on the stool. Claimant was then confronted with his examination before trial testimony, wherein he stated that Noriega did not raise his hands and he just stood there. Claimant then testified at trial that Noriega did not raise his hands on the day of the accident. At his examination before trial, claimant testified that he found it unusual for a correction officer to just stand there. At trial, claimant testified that he did not think it unusual for Noriega to just stand there. Claimant proceeded to exit the van without saying anything to Noriega regarding claimant's need for assistance in exiting.
Anthony Pitter, who has been incarcerated at Sing Sing since 1998, testified that he
was sitting next to claimant in the van and then exited behind him. Prior to September 19, 2000, Pitter had been on several trips outside Sing Sing.
Pitter testified that he saw
claimant step on the stool and fall on his face while the correction officers did nothing. Pitter laughed at claimant's mishap. Pitter, with the assistance of the correction officers, exited the van after claimant and noted that the stool was wobbly.
Before the trial, Pitter signed two statements, one before claimant's attorney (Ex. II) and another before
defendant's attorney (Ex. JJ). Pitter conceded that there were several incorrect sentences in the statement he signed before claimant's attorney and, despite having signed the statement before defendant's attorney, Pitter repeatedly testified that he did not mean what was contained therein and that the writing was replete with errors.[1]
Pitter testified that the correction officers stood outside the open door of the van, rather than on either side of the stool within the parameters of the open door.
On cross-examination, Pitter admitted that he was not paying attention to the correction officers until he exited the van and that he did not know whether there were two or three officers on the trip. Pitter conceded that he was not really watching claimant when he was stepping down from the van.
Nurse Eugene Head testified that he prepared
claimant's Report of Inmate Injury form (Ex. 4). He explained that injured inmates are accompanied at the clinic by correction officers. Where the correction officer is familiar with the occurrence of an injury, Head tries to obtain a consensus from the officer and the inmate to fill out that section of the form which calls for the cause of the injury. The inmate also has the opportunity to complete the following section of the form which calls for the inmate's statement. If the correction officer and the inmate present differing versions of the event and cause of injury, Head would indicate claimant's version under the section for the inmate's statement.
Head testified the cause of injury notation represented claimant's version of the events because Head wrote "leg chains kept
you from correcting of balance" (Ex. 4, emphasis added). He conceded, however, that the notation could have been a consensus since both the correction officer and claimant were in the room. Head did not independently recall whether the officer contributed to the response.
Dr. Victor Cohen testified that he is the Director of Emergency Room Services
at St. Agnes Hospital and has worked there for eight years. He was on duty when claimant was treated in the emergency room. Cohen identified the Emergency Department Record that he completed, but he did not have any independent recollection of the incident (Ex. LL). The record indicated that claimant reported the cause of his injury as a result of "tripped over ankle chains and fell" (Id.). Cohen explained that he obtains information to complete the section, Chief Complaint: HPI (History Present Illness), by interviewing the patient. If the information is provided by another source, such as a correction officer, Cohen notes that other person. Since there was no such notation in this case, he was certain that the information came from claimant.
Correction Officer Richard Williamson testified that he has been employed at
Sing Sing for 36 years and for the past 22 years, has been assigned to the Transportation Unit. As part of his duties in this unit, he has trained transportation officers, including Noriega. Williamson and Noriega had worked together approximately ten times prior to claimant's accident.
Williamson explained the procedures used in 2000 when inmates exited a van.
An unarmed correction officer puts a stool on the ground, places his foot on the stool, and uses his hands to assist inmates exiting the van.
On September 19, 2000, Williamson, Brinson and Noriega transported the inmates to St. Agnes. Williamson, who was armed, drove the van. When they reached the hospital, Williamson parked the van and stood at the rear of the vehicle on the driver's side. Brinson was at the rear of the vehicle on the passenger's side. Williamson
did not witness claimant's fall and did not observe the position of the stool that day.
Correction Officer Henry Brinson testified that he had been employed by DOCS from 1971 to 2001 and has spent the last 18 years of his career as a transportation officer. On September 19, 2000, he was assigned to transport
claimant and three other inmates to St. Agnes Hospital. When they arrived at their destination, Brinson exited the van and opened the rear door for Noriega. Noriega placed the stool on the pavement under the left rear door and started to assist the inmates. Brinson stood in the back of the vehicle on the passenger side.
Brinson observed Noriega standing to the right side of the left door with his left foot on the stool. Looking through the van window, Brinson saw Noriega using his hands to assist the first inmate out of the van, but Brinson did not see
claimant exit the van. Brinson heard noise and a commotion. He then saw Noriega lifting claimant off the ground.
Brinson testified that he did not take
claimant to the emergency room and therefore, never advised the medical staff that claimant tripped on his chains. Brinson explained that, because he was armed, it would not have been proper procedure for him to go into the examining room.
Correction Officer Edward Noriega testified that he has been employed at Sing Sing for three years and had been given on-the-job training as to the procedure for assisting inmates exiting vans. He explained that the stool is positioned closest to the door on the left (when facing the van), five inches away from the well. Noriega places his left foot on the corner of the stool and then uses his right hand to grab the inmate'
s left arm and puts his left hand on the inmate's chest. Noriega testified that when the inmates step onto the stool, they usually proceed down sideways. Noriega does not release his hands until the inmate is off the stool.
On September 19, 2000, they arrived at the hospital at approximately 9:30 a.m. and parked in one of the 20 spaces allocated to the Department of Correctional Services. Noriega was not certain of the exact spot but, based upon the relationship to a driveway, he narrowed the location to three possibilities which had similar characteristics. He described the surface as paved with a mild pitch; it was neither bumpy, uneven, nor cracked. Noriega placed the stool on the ground near the left door of the van, five inches from the well. Noriega recalled assisting
claimant in the same manner as he had the inmate who had previously exited. After claimant cleared the stool, Noriega turned his attention to the next inmate. Before the next inmate exited, Noriega heard a thump and then observed claimant on the ground three feet from the stool. Noriega did not see claimant fall. Noriega went to help claimant and grabbed his left arm to lift him. When Noriega asked claimant what had happened, claimant replied that he had tripped over his chains.
Noriega further testified that he and Williamson brought
claimant to the emergency room while Brinson took the other inmates to the clinic. As the unarmed officer, Noriega went into the room with claimant while Williamson, who was armed, remained outside. Noriega stated that Dr. Cohen asked claimant what happened and claimant responded that he fell outside and tripped over his chains. Noriega maintained that he did not say anything to Dr. Cohen about how the accident happened.
When they returned to Sing Sing,
claimant was brought to the facility's emergency room for evaluation. There was another correction officer in the emergency room. Noriega heard Nurse Head speaking with claimant, but Noriega did not participate in the conversation, nor hear the substance of their discussion. Head never asked Noriega how the accident occurred and Noriega never said that the stool was unbalanced and that he only assisted claimant after he had fallen. Noriega photographed claimant's injuries (Exs. F, G).
Noriega prepared a memorandum for his supervisor reporting that
claimant had tripped over his restraints. Referring to the Report of Inmate Injury form, signed by claimant, Noriega further noted that, "Inmate Morales signed the medical documents stating exactly what I just written [sic] in this to-from" (Ex. D).
The State owes a duty of reasonable care to its inmates incarcerated in a State facility (
see Flaherty v State of New York, 296 NY 342). The State, however, is not an insurer of inmate safety and negligence cannot be inferred solely from the occurrence of an accident (see Killeen v State of New York, 66 NY2d 850; Condon v State of New York, 193 AD2d 874).
Upon consideration of all the evidence, including listening to the witnesses testify and observing their demeanor as they did so, the court finds a lack of credible evidence sufficient to establish that
defendant was negligent and that such negligence either caused or contributed to claimant's accident. The Court finds that the testimony of claimant and Pitter was neither forthright nor credible. Moreover, Pitter admitted he was not paying attention to the correction officers until he exited the van and that he was not really watching when claimant was stepping down from the van. Significantly, the Court found the testimony of Noriega to be genuine and true. Thus, there was no basis for finding that defendant deviated from its duty to aid inmates in exiting the van and that defendant in any way caused or contributed to claimant's mishap.
Accordingly, defendant's motion to dismiss, upon which decision was reserved, is now GRANTED.

LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED DISMISSING CLAIM NO. 103503.


December 17, 2002
White Plains, New York

HON. TERRY JANE RUDERMAN
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1]The Court did not attribute any weight to either writing.