New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

CARTWRIGHT v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2003-009-112, Claim No. 102683


Synopsis


Claimant sought damages for personal injuries suffered by her when she fell while climbing stairs on the SUNY Oswego campus. The Court found that claimant did not establish that the State created a hazardous condition, or that it had any actual or constructive notice of any such dangerous condition, and therefore dismissed the claim.

Case Information

UID:
2003-009-112
Claimant(s):
JOANNE B. CARTWRIGHT and RONALD CARTWRIGHT At the trial, the Court directed that the caption of this claim be amended to reflect the correct spelling of claimants' name.
Claimant short name:
CARTWRIGHT
Footnote (claimant name) :
At the trial, the Court directed that the caption of this claim be amended to reflect the correct spelling of claimants' name.
Defendant(s):
THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
102683
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
NICHOLAS V. MIDEY JR.
Claimant's attorney:
WALTER F. BENSON, ESQ.
BY: Michael C. Cogswell, Esq.,Of Counsel.
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER
Attorney General
BY: Gordon J. Cuffy, Esq.,
Assistant Attorney GeneralOf Counsel.
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
June 26, 2003
City:
Syracuse
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision

This is a claim for personal injuries suffered by claimant Joanne B. Cartwright,[1]
when she fell while climbing stairs located at the northeast loading dock at Hewitt Hall on the Oswego campus of the State University of New York ("SUNY Oswego"). Claimants allege that the State was negligent in the operation and maintenance of this loading dock and stairway.
At the time of this accident, Joanne Cartwright testified that she was employed as a delivery person for her employer, Onondaga News Agency. Her duties included deliveries to the SUNY Oswego campus, which she had been making twice a week for approximately six years. On August 12, 1999, between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m., claimant was in the process of making one of these deliveries to the bookstore located at Hewitt Hall on the SUNY Oswego campus. Claimant testified that she fell when she began to walk up the stairs located at the northeast loading dock at Hewitt Hall. After she fell, she noticed that her feet had become entangled with a strip of clear plastic binding, the type which is used to bind bundles of newspapers and magazines. Claimant had not noticed this strap prior to her fall.

The only other witness to testify at trial was Steven Ives, the head custodian of the academic area at SUNY Oswego. Mr. Ives testified that Hewitt Hall is one of 15 buildings in the academic area, and that it is one of the more "active buildings"[2]
on campus, containing offices, a cafeteria, and a bookstore. He testified that a dumpster was located adjacent to the loading dock stairway on which claimant fell. All garbage and debris from the building, and in particular from the bookstore and cafeteria, was deposited into this dumpster, and the dumpster was positioned so that such garbage and debris could be thrown into it from the top of the stairway. Mr. Ives further testified that the dumpster was emptied on a daily basis, and at additional times if it was needed. Mr. Ives also testified that he had not received any complaints about accumulated garbage near or on the stairs next to the dumpster, but that he had received some complaints from janitors under his supervision that bindings would sometimes be left on or near the loading dock by those persons delivering newspapers to the bookstore.
It is claimant's contention that the State was negligent in the operation and maintenance of the loading dock and stairway at Hewitt Hall in that it created a hazardous condition, and failed to give warning of this hazard, when it placed the garbage dumpster adjacent to the stairway and loading dock area. Claimant contends that it was quite foreseeable that garbage or debris could fall on the loading dock and stairway, rather than into the dumpster, and that such debris could contain the clear plastic newspaper bindings generated by the bookstore, the type of binding which caused claimant to stumble and fall.

As a property owner, the State is held to the same standard of care as any private landowner (
Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233; Preston v State of New York, 59 NY2d 997). The State must act as a reasonable person in maintaining its property in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances, including the likelihood of injury to others, the seriousness of the injury, and the burden of avoiding the risk (Miller v State of New York, 62 NY2d 506). The State, however, is not an insurer, and negligence may not be inferred solely from the happening of an accident (Tripoli v State of New York, 72 AD2d 823; Mochen v State of New York, 57 AD2d 719).
Therefore, in order to prevail on her claim, claimant must establish by a fair preponderance of the evidence that the State breached its duty of care (1) either by creating, or having actual or constructive notice of a foreseeably dangerous condition; and (2) failing to take steps to correct, or at least neutralize, the dangerous condition within a reasonable time. A landowner can be charged with constructive notice if a defect is visible and apparent, and if it has existed for a sufficient period of time for the defendant to discover and remedy the condition prior to the accident which occurred (
Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836).
In this claim, and as stated above, it is claimant's contention that the defendant created a hazardous condition by locating the dumpster near the stairway, creating the likelihood that garbage and debris could accumulate on the stairs. However, there was no testimony or direct proof to establish that the clear plastic binding with which claimant became entangled, causing her to fall, came from the dumpster. As established by the testimony of Mr. Ives, it was just as likely, if not much more likely, that the binding had simply been left in the area by a person (a non-State employee) delivering newspapers or magazines to the bookstore.

With regard to the issue of notice, a general awareness that a dangerous condition may exist is legally insufficient to constitute notice to a defendant (
Piacquadio v Recine Realty Corp., 84 NY2d 967; Smith v State of New York, 260 AD2d 819). This principle has specifically been held applicable to a situation where litter was present on a stairway, with such facts being insufficient to charge a landowner with notice of a dangerous condition (Priester v Madison Sq. Garden Corp., 230 AD2d 838).
Furthermore, there was no testimony to establish the length of time that the clear plastic binding had been left in the area prior to claimant's fall, and as a result the State cannot be charged with constructive notice.

Accordingly, the Court must find that claimant has not satisfied her burden of establishing that the State created a hazardous condition which caused her fall and resulting injuries. Furthermore, claimant has not established that the State had any notice, either actual or constructive, that the clear plastic binding had been left on the stairway. Without any such knowledge, the State cannot be held responsible for failing to place any warning signs in the area for employees and/or third parties.

For the reasons set forth herein, the Court finds, after carefully considering all of the evidence presented at trial, that Claim No. 102683 must be dismissed.

Any motions not heretofore ruled upon are hereby denied.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.

June 26, 2003
Syracuse, New York

HON. NICHOLAS V. MIDEY JR.
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1] The claim of Ronald Cartwright is derivative in nature. Therefore, all references to claimant, unless otherwise specified, are to Joanne B. Cartwright.
[2] Unless otherwise indicated, all references and quotations are taken from the Court's trial notes.