The above claim was tried before me on May 13, 2002, in Rochester, New York,
and was limited to the issue of liability.
Ms. Johnson was injured on January 15, 1997 at approximately 9:40 a.m. while an
inmate at Albion Correctional Facility (Albion) when she fell into an uncovered
manhole at the facility. There is no dispute regarding the facts surrounding
this incident, and Claimant's testimony was not contradicted.
According to Claimant and the other witnesses who testified at trial, Albion is
divided into three sections for maintenance purposes: upper, middle and lower.
Approximately one month prior to her accident, Ms. Johnson had been assigned,
with three other inmates, to the lower section. This section covered the area
which included the recreation yard; Buildings D, E, F and G; the commissary; the
gym, and the infirmary. In the winter, the crew to which Claimant was assigned
was to shovel snow from the areas where people walked, to break up any ice that
had formed in the areas used, and to lay down a covering of salt in these areas.
On the day of the accident, the Claimant testified that she and the other crew
members met at the maintenance building/shack area at approximately 8:15 a.m.
and waited for the arrival of the correction officer assigned to supervise them.
On this date that was Correction Officer Irwin. Once he arrived and gave them
their assignment for that day, they then went to the shack to get their tools
and salt buckets.
Claimant testified that on this date she was wearing her winter work clothing,
consisting of a state-issued snow suit and work boots. In traveling to the
maintenance building, Claimant and other inmates walked across the "grassy" area
in front of the building rather than stay on the paved roadway, since it was a
shorter distance to travel from Building L. Moreover, it is apparent from all
the testimony that this was the general and accepted practice of inmates as well
as prison personnel. After securing her tools and salt bucket, Claimant and the
rest of her crew walked or cut across the lawn area in front of the maintenance
building and proceeded to the area of the gym to begin work. She stated that
they cleared that area, proceeded to clear the chapel walkway, and then moved on
to the area in front of the infirmary. When they arrived there they shoveled
snow and chopped ice. Having run out of salt, the crew started back to the
maintenance area where the salt trailer was located to reload.
Claimant stated that she was carrying her shovel on her shoulder and had
crossed over a grassy area near the infirmary, walked across the paved roadway
and stepped over a snowbank which had been created by a plow attached to the
front of a truck. She stepped off the roadway onto the snow bank and then
stepped over the bank with her other foot. She stated that she took half a step
and fell into an open manhole which she did not see (
Exhibits 1, 2, 3 and 4). She was able to break her fall
somewhat, but still fell in such a manner that her body, up to her arms, was in
the hole. By using her arms, and with the assistance of one member of her work
crew, Stacey Wynn, she was able to keep herself from falling all the way into
Claimant was eventually lifted out of the hole by Correction Officer Schroder,
who heard shouting and walked over to the scene. While he did not see the fall
itself, he did observe the Claimant in the opening being held up by another
inmate. He grabbed the Claimant's snow outfit at the waist, held her steady and
then was able to extract her from her predicament. He testified that he
observed that the manhole cover had been dislodged, leaving the opening
The manhole cover is made of iron and, according to the testimony at trial, was
described as being approximately two feet in diameter and one inch thick. It
was screwed/bolted onto a collar or base that was approximately six inches to
eight inches in height and was also one inch thick. The collar, with the cover
attached in place, was designed to sit over the hole, covering it completely.
It is evident to me that the collar and the cover, in combination, would weigh a
great deal and could not have been easily moved without the application of
significant force (
Exhibits 1, 2, 3, 11, 13, 14 and 15). The testimony of
Correction Officer Irwin revealed that at some time after Claimant had first
walked through this area and before the time of the accident, a snow plow had
removed snow from the roadway and apparently, in pushing the snow to the side,
struck and dislodged the collar and cover, and pushed them a sufficient distance
to leave the hole dangerously exposed. At the Court's direction, Officer Irwin
circled in red on Exhibit 3 the area of the tire marks made by the plow. He
stated that the roadway, known as the "hospital loop," is plowed on a regular
basis when there is an accumulation of snow, and that the dislodged manhole was
located to the side of the road. He went on to state that based on the
photographs marked as Exhibits 1, 2 and 3, it appeared that the plow drove over
the manhole and moved the base and cover. It was his belief that there were no
markings to alert anyone as to the location of the manhole when it was covered
The Defendant called Maintenance Supervisor Rodney Woolston, who testified that
he checked the work orders for the date of the accident, but was unable to
locate any record of work to be done at the site of the fall. He also stated
that there were no records of any complaints filed relating to the manhole.
However, he stated that no work orders are generated when there is an emergency
and that the situation at bar would be considered one, thus explaining why there
may have been no record of a work order.
Just as any private landowner, the State has a duty to exercise reasonable care
to maintain its property (
Basso v Miller
, 40 NY2d 233; Preston v State of New York
, 59 NY2d
997), including the maintenance of its prison grounds (see, e.g.,
Montross v State of New York
, 219 AD2d 845; Bowers v State of New
, 241 AD2d 760; Condon v State of New York
, 193 AD2d 874). This
means that the State must take reasonable steps to cure dangerous conditions as
to which it has actual or constructive knowledge (Miller v City of
, 258 AD2d 947, 947-948, lv denied
93 NY2d 807). Of
course, neither actual nor constructive notice is required when the landowner is
responsible for the creation of the dangerous condition (Merlo v Zimmer
231 AD2d 952). This is so even in cases such as this, where the dangerous
condition was created by the landowner as a result of its snow removal
operations (cf., Mills v Farwin Realty Corp.
, 30 AD2d 537,
23 NY2d 897).
The proof in this case overwhelmingly establishes that the inmates, as well as
prison personnel, made use of the lawn areas to gain access to the maintenance
buildings. Certainly, it cannot be refuted that the Defendant was aware of this
practice. Further, it is clear from the evidence before me that during the
winter months this practice of using the so-called "short cut" continued.
It is equally clear that the State, through its agents, servants and/or
employees, created the condition which resulted in the injury to Claimant. As a
consequence, I find that it breached its duty of care owed to the Claimant, and
she suffered injury as a result of this breach. I further find that the
Defendant's negligence was the sole proximate cause of Claimant's injury. Based
on the record before me, I cannot attribute any degree of negligence to the
conduct of the Claimant. She clearly was unaware that the manhole cover had
been dislodged and was unable to take any evasive action to avoid the fall. Her
uncontradicted testimony was that she stepped on the snow bank created by the
plowing, and as she stepped down, she fell into the hole.
Most disturbing to me is that the operator of the plow failed to take any
action to warn anyone that the manhole cover had been dislodged. Given the
dimension of the cover and collar, as well as its composition, it would have
required an extraordinary degree of force, in my opinion, to move it off its
foundation. Just as obvious to me is the fact that there must have been some
damage to the plow, and the driver would likely have experienced a jarring that
should have alerted him to the fact that something out of the ordinary had
occurred. That being said, the Defendant should have taken the step of warning
the affected inmate and civilian population that that danger now existed.
Accordingly, I find that the State is 100% responsible for the accident that
occurred on January 15, 1997. The Clerk of the Court is directed to enter an
interlocutory judgment on the issue of liability. This claim will be scheduled
for trial on the issue of damages as soon as practicable.
All motions not heretofore ruled upon are now denied.
LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.