New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

JOHNSON v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2002-013-517, Claim No. 98094


Synopsis



Case Information

UID:
2002-013-517
Claimant(s):
EDNA JOHNSON
Claimant short name:
JOHNSON
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
98094
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
PHILIP J. PATTI
Claimant's attorney:
PUSATIER, SHERMAN, ABBOTT & SUGARMANBY: STEPHEN F. PUSATIER, ESQ.
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER
Attorney General of the State of New York
BY: THOMAS G. RAMSAY, ESQ.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
November 25, 2002
City:
Rochester
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision

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 (
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 the hole.
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 half-exposed.

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 (
see, 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 with snow.
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 York, 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 Syracuse, 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, appeal dismissed 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.


November 25, 2002
Rochester, New York

HON. PHILIP J. PATTI
Judge of the Court of Claims