New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

AKAM v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2002-028-501, Claim No. 101083


Negligence action alleging failure to provide proper equipment is dismissed. The Court credited the testimony of the supervisor over that of the Claimant.

Case Information

Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

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

Cross-motion number(s):

Claimant's attorney:
Defendant's attorney:
BY: Eileen Bryant, Esq. Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
March 4, 2002

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

This claim, filed on September 17, 1999, alleges the Claimant, Edward Akam (Claimant) was injured when the transmission of the dump truck he was repairing fell onto his left leg, injuring his knee. The Claim alleges the Defendant was negligent in failing to properly train and supervise him. At the conclusion of the trial, which addressed only the issue of liability, the Court permitted Claimant, over objection, to amend his claim to conform to the proof, such that the claim alleged that the State failed to provide the proper equipment; namely a transmission jack.

Claimant alleged his accident occurred on June 23, 1999, while he was an inmate at Franklin Correctional Facility (Franklin CF), employed in the Franklin CF garage. According to Claimant, he was directed by his supervisor, Jeff,[1]
to install a clutch in a light dump truck. In order to accomplish the task, Claimant was required to align the spline on the transmission and clutch while working under the dump truck on a creeper. The transmission, which Claimant estimated weighed 300 pounds, had been removed by another worker and was resting on a jack. Claimant maintained the transmission was on a floor or axle jack and not a transmission jack. Claimant, a highly skilled automotive mechanic who owned and operated his own repair shop for thirty years where he specialized in large repair jobs as opposed to routine maintenance, explained that a transmission jack has a saddle or cradle in which the transmission can be seated and has two chains to hold it in place while being jockeyed into alignment. The floor or axle jack, among other differences, does not have either the saddle or chains to hold a transmission in place. Claimant testified that based upon the length and type of his work experience in the automotive field, he did not require any training in the work or use of the equipment at the Franklin CF garage.
On the day in question, Claimant testified he was directed to work on the dump truck alone. According to Claimant, when he questioned Jeff about working alone and using the jack, both of which Claimant considered unsafe, Jeff stated the other inmate employees were busy. When Claimant persisted, Jeff asked Claimant if he was refusing a direct order. Claimant explained he then proceeded to do the job because "I knew the ramifications of refusing a direct order."[2]
The dump truck had been properly placed on jack stands. Claimant testified that when the transmission slipped off of the jack, he was on his back on a creeper. As to how the transmission slipped, Claimant stated he was "not sure whether the jack or tranny [transmission] fell first or I wasn't holding it the right balance - I don't know" or whether "it [transmission] hit something or I knocked it off." Claimant testified after the transmission fell, he rolled it off himself and went to the office. There were no witnesses present.
On cross-examination, Claimant testified that although he stated in his Claim that he was using a "transmission jack" (
see, Claim, ¶4) he did not mean that there was a "transmission jack", just that the transmission was on a jack. Claimant also acknowledged that despite going to the infirmary on four occasions after the accident, he did not complain of injury to his knee until September 9, 1999.
The Defendant's only witness was Howard J. [Jeff] Maneely (Maneely), a fourteen year employee of DOCS, owner of Jeff's Automotive Repair and Claimant's supervisor at Franklin CF. Maneely testified that the inmates are closely supervised as the garage is physically located outside of the prison proper. As such, inmates who work at the garage require "outside clearance" and participation is limited to inmates who are near their release date. Maneely described Claimant as a "good worker" and it was clear he knew what he was doing.

Maneely denied telling Claimant to do the job himself explaining that in the first instance an inmate needed to be supervised at all times to prevent injury and careless work. Furthermore, the particular job assigned to Claimant required three people, two under the truck to guide the transmission and operate the jack; and one in the truck to accept the shift or candle as the transmission was lifted into place. Maneely explained the dump truck could only be repaired while on jack stands as it was too heavy for the garage's lift or hoist. He further testified that Claimant never reported the incident to him; rather, he only learned of the accident when Defendant's investigators came calling.

According to Maneely, the Franklin CF garage had both a NORCO transmission jack for use on vehicles which were on jack stands and a SNAP-ON transmission jack for use on vehicles which were on a lift or hoist. Maneely testified that the NORCO transmission jack has been in the garage since 1987.[3]

When inmates are directed to participate in prison work programs, the State owes a duty to provide a safe workplace, with reasonably safe equipment, and to give adequate warnings and instructions for the safe operation of equipment (
Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877; Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910; Callahan v State of New York, 19 AD2d 437, affd 14 NY2d 665). Thus, if a safety device on a piece of equipment is broken or removed and is not replaced, the State can be found to be negligent and liable for resultant injury of the type the device was intended to forestall, even if the precise chain of events leading to the injury could not have been foreseen (Kandrach v State of New York, supra, at 913). On the other hand, the mere happening of an accident carries with it no presumption of negligence on the part of the State (Fitzgerald v State of New York, 28 Misc 2d 283; Richards v State of New York, 205 Misc 3). Labor Law provisions relating to worker safety do not govern relationships and duties between the State and inmate or patient workers in its institutions, but they may provide a standard of care applicable to the State in a common law action for negligence (D'Argenio v Village of Homer, 202 AD2d 883; Fitzgerald v State of New York, 28 Misc 2d 283, supra; Beale v State of New York, 46 NYS2d 824, 826; Lee v State of New York, 187 Misc 268).
Where an inmate fails to use ordinary care and pursues a dangerous course of conduct, he or she must take some responsibility for their own negligence (
Carter v State of New York, 194 AD2d 967, 968; Hicks v State of New York, 124 AD2d 949, 950). Claims have been dismissed where an inmate has refused to use proper safety equipment or to call a supervisor's attention to the fact that such protective equipment has become unusable (Maldonado v State of New York, 255 AD2d 630; McLoud v State of New York, 237 AD2d 783, 785).
Credibility is a critical issue in the claim before the court. Weighing evidence and assessing the veracity of conflicting testimony is a task for which there is no precise or flawless test. This Court sits as the finder of fact and therefore the Court's responsibilities include deciding witness credibility and resolving factual disputes (
Vizzini v State of New York, 278 AD2d 562; Colangione v State of New York, 187 AD2d 844; see, Savio v State of New York, 268 AD2d 907, lv denied 95 NY2d 758). As this trial progressed, the Court had an opportunity to hear and see both witnesses firsthand (see, Auger v State of New York, 263 AD2d 929; Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877). Claimant's testimony did not ring true to the Court. Claimant's reliance on the explanation that "things are different in prison" for allegedly doing the work alone and for failing to report his injury until September was unconvincing. Furthermore, the Court notes that Claimant had previously been injured in the garage and Maneely took Claimant to the infirmary. There was no explanation offered as to why, following the incident alleged herein, Maneely would not again have taken Claimant to the infirmary, if, as Claimant testified, he reported the accident to Maneely. Moreover, Claimant's explanation regarding his use of the words "transmission jack" in the Claim was equally unconvincing. As such, the Court does not credit Claimant's testimony. On the other hand, the Court credits Maneely's testimony. The NORCO transmission jack, appropriate for the job Claimant was performing, was present in the garage. Claimant was not directed to work alone because inmates must be supervised and the work required more than a single mechanic.
In the instant case, the Claimant has failed to establish by a preponderance of the credible evidence that any negligence attributable to the State was a cause of Claimant's accident, let alone that the accident, as described by Claimant, in fact occurred.
Accordingly, the Claim is hereby dismissed in its entirety. All motions not previously ruled upon are denied. The Clerk shall enter judgment accordingly.

March 4, 2002
Albany, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] "Jeff" is Howard J. Maneely, a civilian employee of the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS), who supervised the garage and testified on behalf of the Defendant.
[2] All quotations are from the Court's notes or the audiotapes of the proceeding unless otherwise noted.
[3] Both witnesses greatly expanded the Court's knowledge of the workings of a jack and the various types available for different jobs. There was no dispute that a floor or axle jack was the wrong piece of equipment for a transmission.