New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

MOCHRIE v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2002-019-030, Claim No. 99680


Claimant failed to establish that State failed to provide adequate instruction, training and/or safe equipment to inmate Claimant hurt while trimming trees. Claimant's descision to climb tree was in violation of prior training and proper procedure and his own actions were sole cause of fall. Claim dismissed.

Case Information

DONALD MOCHRIE, JR. The court has sua sponte amended the caption to reflect the State of New York as the only proper defendant.
Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :
The court has sua sponte amended the caption to reflect the State of New York as the only proper defendant.
Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

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

Cross-motion number(s):

Claimant's attorney:
ZWIEBEL, BRODY, GOLD & FAIRBANKS, LLPBY: Jeffrey M. Brody, Esq., of counsel
Defendant's attorney:
BY: James E. Shoemaker, Assistant Attorney General,of counsel
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
September 26, 2002

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

Claimant, Donald Mochrie, Jr., brings this Claim alleging he was injured as a result of the negligence of the New York State Department of Correctional Services (hereinafter "DOCS") while in their custody on October 30, 1998. This Claim was tried in the Binghamton District on September 17, 2002 and was bifurcated. Consequently, this Decision addresses the issue of liability only.

On October 30, 1998, Claimant was an inmate at the minimum security facility of Camp Pharsalia, located in South Plymouth, New York. The unrefuted testimony establishes that Claimant was a model prisoner at Camp Pharsalia and due to having prior logging and landscaping experience he was assigned to an outdoor work crew upon arrival at Camp Pharsalia. These work crews were taken out of the facility to clear trees, shrubs, brush, and grass, from cross-country trails and hiking paths at sites mostly on public lands. Claimant was designated an "A-man"[1]
within his work crew, which made him responsible for the collection of tools both before and after the work shifts. Under normal circumstances his crew was assigned to the supervision of Correction Officer Richard Mahannah. On October 30, 1998, Claimant and his crew were taken to State land off Whaupaunaucau Road in Chenango County to clear a cross-country ski trail of some branches, limbs, and other obstructions. This crew consisted of approximately seven to eight inmates and they were divided into groups and working at different locations along the trail. On that day the tools assigned to Claimant's crew were two bow saws, two 10-foot pole saws, and two whips or weed choppers.

Claimant testified that the work assignment on October 30, 1998 was very similar to prior work assignments that he had engaged in since arriving at Camp Pharsalia
. Claimant testified that he had prior logging experience from the ages of 12 to 18, working with various family members in felling trees, trimming trees and shrubs, and was fully familiar with the profession and its tools through six plus years of experience. Claimant testified that on the date of the accident his work crew was working along a portion of the Whaupaunaucau Road trail and that in order to clear some of the tree limbs and to trim them flush to the tree trunk it was necessary for him to climb one of the trees in order to get an overhanging limb that was approximately 18 to 20 feet off the ground. Claimant testified that he had climbed numerous trees in the past, at least on 60 to 70 occasions, and had done so in the presence of Correction Officer Mahannah in order to perform his trimming tasks. On this date, Correction Officer Mahannah was not in the immediate vicinity of Claimant and his small work crew when Claimant climbed a tree with a bow saw to be used for trimming and flushing the limb. Claimant scaled the tree, to cut off an overhanging limb that was too large to be cut with a pole saw, and attempted to position himself securely in the tree. Before he commenced cutting, Claimant hung the bow saw on another limb against the trunk of the tree. At that time a gust of wind came along, shaking the tree sufficiently to cause Claimant to grab a hold of the tree trunk to prevent him from falling. In doing so he grabbed the blade of the bow saw resulting in a laceration injury to fingers on his left hand.

Claimant testified at trial that he had been instructed by Correction Officer Mahannah to cut the limbs as best he could. Moreover, he stated that although the educational tape he previously viewed while at Camp Pharsalia in logging and landscaping indicated that they should not climb trees to trim branches and limbs, that rule was honored more frequently in the breach. It was Claimant's position that Correction Officer Mahannah had seen Claimant climb trees on 60 to 70 occasions to cut limbs and had even encouraged Claimant to climb trees to perform his trimming tasks. Claimant contends that he and his crew were encouraged to work quickly and efficiently and upon early completion of assigned daily tasks they would be rewarded with extra privileges such as going out for pizza, relaxing, or swimming at the various State locations where their work was being performed. Claimant implied that it was this effort to expedite the tree trimming process which prompted Correction Officer Mahannah to often look the other way when inmates climbed trees to trim branches and limbs.

At trial the State called Correction Officer Richard T. Mahannah, who is a twenty-six year veteran of the Department of Correctional Services and has been assigned to Camp Pharsalia on and off since 1977. The witness testified that while he instructed inmates to cut limbs and clear trails as "best they can", he did not authorize nor did he have any knowledge of Claimant and/or any other inmates climbing trees to bring down limbs. To the contrary, Correction Officer Mahannah stated that inmates are not allowed to climb trees to clear trails, but instead are instructed to cut the low level branches with the bow saw and cut higher branches with the pole saw which extends approximately 12 feet into the air. He further testified that he specifically instructed the Claimant and the other inmates never to climb trees; however, he cannot remember if he gave that instruction on the date of this accident. Moreover, he counters Claimant's testimony by stating he never saw inmates or the Claimant climb trees in his presence to perform their tasks. To the contrary, the witness points to the instructional video viewed by Claimant, as well as Claimant's own signed acknowledgment (State's Ex. B), to establish Claimant was in fact instructed on the proper methods and procedures for performing his tasks while part of this work crew. Aside from the testimony of the Claimant and the testimony of Correction Officer Mahannah, no other testimonial evidence was received by the Court.

Claimant relies upon common law negligence, as well as violations of Labor Law 27-a (1), (2), (3 [a]), (c), (4 [a]) and 200 (1). (Claimant's Pre-Trial Memorandum).

It is well settled "[t]hat when the State, through its correctional authorities, directs a prison inmate to participate in a work program during incarceration, it owes the inmate a duty to provide reasonably safe machinery and equipment with which to work and adequate warnings and instructions for the safe operation of such machinery and equipment [citations omitted]". (Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910, 913; Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877). The State, however, is not an insurer of the safety of its premises and negligence cannot be inferred solely from the happening of an accident. (Condon v State of New York, 193 AD2d 874). Also, where an inmate fails to use ordinary care and pursues a dangerous course of conduct, the inmate will be assessed some if not all the responsibility for his own negligence. (Hicks v State of New York, 124 AD2d 949, 949-950). Finally, Labor Law provisions relating to worker safety do not govern relationships and duties between the State and inmate workers, but they may provide a standard of care applicable to the State in a common law action for negligence. (Fitzgerald v State of New York, 28 Misc 2d 283, 285; D'Argenio v Village of Homer, 202 AD2d 883).

Here, the Court finds most credible Correction Officer Mahannah's testimony that Claimant was provided adequate and appropriate instructions with respect to training and use of the equipment and that the equipment was reasonably safe for its intended use. Additionally, Claimant, himself, acknowledged that he received instructions on the proper technique for trimming trees both at the facility and prior to his incarceration. In short, there is no evidence that Claimant received any inadequate training or equipment or that he was negligently trained with respect thereto. Rather, the State provided Claimant with reasonably safe equipment and training to perform the assigned job. In sum, the Court finds that Claimant climbed the trees of his own accord outside the presence of Correction Officer Mahannah and in violation of prior training and proper procedure. Claimant's own actions were the sole cause of his near fall and resulting injuries, if any.

Based on the foregoing, Claim No. 99680 is DISMISSED.

Any and all motions on which the Court may have previously reserved or which were not previously determined, are hereby denied.


September 26, 2002
Binghamton, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1]Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from the Court's trial notes.