New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

WEST v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2002-015-563, Claim No. 100320


Synopsis


Court awarded $750.00 after trial to inmate whose hand was injured by correction officer's negligent closing of feed up slot on cell door.

Case Information

UID:
2002-015-563
Claimant(s):
MILES WEST
Claimant short name:
WEST
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
100320
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
FRANCIS T. COLLINS
Claimant's attorney:
Miles West, Pro Se
Defendant's attorney:
Honorable Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General
By: G. Lawrence Dillon, Esquire Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
August 21, 2002
City:
Saratoga Springs
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Decision
A trial of the instant pro se claim was held at Marcy Correctional Facility on May 14, 2002. The claim alleges the claimant sustained an injury to his right hand suffered when a correction officer negligently closed a feed up slot on claimant's cell door as claimant was attempting to retrieve mail through the slot.

Claimant appeared at trial and offered the following testimony[1]
. He was assigned to the Special Housing Unit (SHU) of Mid-State Correctional Facility on the day of the accident, March 15, 1999 and purportedly was having ongoing problems with certain correction officers, including one Officer Holliday. He testified that he had filed written complaints which were investigated by the internal Inspector General and others. On the day at issue claimant asserts that Officer Holliday was delivering the mail to the cells in the SHU. The officer allegedly inserted claimant's mail into the slot and slammed the door closed as claimant reached to receive it injuring claimant's right hand. Claimant offered a sworn written statement from his cell mate, Norman Moore. The State objected to the statement's receipt on the ground that claimant had failed to disclose the existence of the statement in response to the State's omnibus discovery demands. The Court, noting that Norman Moore was listed by claimant as a witness in his discovery responses, allowed the sworn statement to be received in evidence. A second statement from an inmate identified as Ramirez was objected to as lacking notarization and was not received in evidence.
Claimant testified that his injury included the lower part of the right hand and wrist. Swelling began on March 16 and continued on March 17. He followed facility procedures for requesting sick call by placing a slip outside his cell but the slip was not picked up. He made an additional sick call request on March 21, 1999 and was permitted to go to sick call on March 22, 1999. The nurse at sick call noted swelling of the right hand and prescribed Motrin.

Claimant's attempt to introduce his ambulatory health record showing sick call visits for the period 3/22/99 - 5/17/99 was objected to on the grounds that the records were not certified. The Court sustained the objection and refused to admit the records into evidence.

Claimant further testified that he reported to sick call several times after March 22, 1999 including a visit on March 25, 1999 when his hand was X rayed. He was advised that the X ray of his hand was negative. On March 29, 1999 claimant received a prescription for Naprosyn and was instructed by the nurse to apply hot and cold compresses to help reduce the swelling. Thereafter he reported to sick call with the same complaint on April 1, 1999 and May 8, 1999. The swelling allegedly began to subside in mid-May but pain in the right thumb and wrist persisted.

The claimant was subsequently transferred to another facility where he reported to sick call with continuing complaints of pain. He was given Motrin 400 mg. and instructed to exercise the hand using a rubber ball. Claimant alleges that he obtained little pain relief and that the pain in his right hand continues to the present. He now wears a wrist wrap which affords some relief. He alleges that following transfer to another facility he was examined and subjected to nerve analysis. As a result of that analysis he was advised that his continuing pain was attributable to nerve damage.

On cross-examination the witness testified that in order to retrieve mail from the slot an inmate's hand would extend outside the door to the cell. This procedure was different for food trays which when placed on the slot extended farther into the cell. Claimant did not recall having been injured while using the feed up slot prior to the incident at issue even though he had obtained mail in that manner on a regular basis. He repeated his earlier testimony that he completed a sick call slip on March 16, the day following the date of injury, but was not seen by the nurse until March 21, 1999. Claimant stated that it was unusual for him not to be seen by the nurse within 24 hours of requesting sick call but that unusual things happened after he started having problems with the correction officers.

Claimant offered no redirect testimony.

The defendant called two witnesses, the first of which was Kim Cole, a registered nurse at Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center who was previously employed at Mid-State Correctional Facility, S-Block. While at Mid-State she oversaw the medical care of S-Block inmates who were generally seen the day after a sick call slip was completed. Ms. Cole testified that it would have been unusual for an inmate not to have been seen within 24 hours of the nurse's receipt of a sick call slip.

On cross-examination the witness acknowledged that she was aware of inmate complaints about not being seen within 24 hours of dropping a sick call slip and indicated that in such instances she advised the complaining inmate to fill out another slip until he was seen by the nurse. The witness did not recall seeing claimant on March 24, 1999 but upon being shown the claimant's ambulatory health record for that date testified that she recognized her handwriting indicating that claimant was seen by her on March 21, 24, 29; April 15, 25, and May 8 and 17, 1999. Exhibit 3 was received in evidence as a business records exception to the hearsay rule with regard to those treatment dates specified by the witness as being dates on which she saw and treated the claimant. The witness testified that she would ask the facility doctor to schedule an X ray of an inmate following her assessment of an injury but would not schedule an X ray merely upon an inmate's request.

Defendant's second witness was correction officer Arnold Holliday who testified that he is employed by the State of New York at Mid-State Correctional Facility and was so employed on March 15, 1999. His duties on the 3:00 - 11:00 p.m. shift included delivering food, books and mail to inmates housed in S-Block. Upon reporting for duty the witness stated he would sort the mail and hand it out. He stated that when delivering mail he would open the slot in the cell door, place the mail on the open slot and then close the slot after it was retrieved by the inmate. The witness did not recall any incident in which an inmate's hand has been caught in the closing slot.

The witness further described the sick call process saying that generally an inmate would be seen within 15-20 minutes of submitting a sick call slip, particularly if an inmate were complaining about an injury. In such a case the correction officer would inform the medical staff and the medical staff would complete an injury report. Officer Holliday testified that he did not recall being the subject of a grievance filed by claimant regarding the injury to claimant's hand.

Despite claimant's attempt to jog his memory on cross-examination the witness restated his prior assertion that he had no recollection of an incident involving injury to the claimant's hand which allegedly occurred on March 15, 1999 or of a related grievance.

While the State is not an insurer of the safety of inmates in its correctional institutions (
Casella v State of New York, 121 AD2d 495) it is obligated to maintain and operate its correctional institutions in such manner and under such circumstances as to protect its inmates against foreseeable hazards (Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233). The Court finds that the closing of the feed up slot while claimant was in the process of retrieving his mail deviated from the standard of reasonable care and the State may be held liable for the injury resulting therefrom.
The Court finds upon the testimony offered at trial that claimant established by a preponderance of the evidence that the mail slot was closed in a negligent manner by Correction Officer Holliday resulting in pain and swelling to claimant's right hand. Claimant failed, however, to establish by competent medical proof that his injury was permanent or that his present complaints of pain are causally related to such injury.

The Court therefore awards $750.00 in damages. The Clerk of the Court shall enter judgment in accord with this decision.


August 21, 2002
Saratoga Springs, New York

HON. FRANCIS T. COLLINS
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1]Synopsis of the testimony comes from the Court's own trial notes and a tape recording of the trial.