New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

PARK v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2003-009-124, Claim No. 100330


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:
BY: Walter F. Benson, Esq.,Of Counsel.
Defendant's attorney:
Attorney General
BY: Timothy P. Mulvey, Esq.,
Assistant Attorney GeneralOf Counsel.
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
December 10, 2003

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

On July 29, 1998, claimant was an inmate in the care and custody of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, housed at Watertown Correctional Facility in Watertown, New York. On that date, claimant was working in the kitchen at the facility and suffered injuries when an industrial-type steam kettle tipped and poured boiling water onto him, burning his legs. Claimant seeks damages for his injuries, alleging causes of action based upon common law negligence and the doctrine of
res ipsa loquitur.
The essential facts surrounding the accident are not in dispute. Claimant testified that he was employed as a cook in the facility mess hall, and had reported to work at approximately 12:30 p.m. on the day of the accident. The mess hall was equipped with three industrial-type steam kettles. On this date, and as would commonly occur when he reported for work, the kettles were already filled with water, and they were being heated so that the water would boil. When the water started boiling in kettle #1, claimant was to pour a 50 pound box of rice into the kettle. Claimant testified that he picked up the 50 pound box of rice, set it on the lip of the kettle, and started pouring the rice. Almost immediately, the kettle tipped toward claimant, spilling its contents, consisting of boiling water, oil and rice, onto his lower legs.

Claimant further testified that at no time prior to this date was he aware of any problems with the steam kettles, including kettle #1, in the mess hall, nor had anyone warned him that the kettle was not working properly. He testified that he had prior knowledge of the kitchen facilities, that he had used all of the kettles on prior occasions, and that he had never experienced any mechanical difficulties with them. He also testified that the crank mechanism for kettle #1, which was the device utilized to properly tip the kettle, was not being operated by either claimant or any other employee at the time.

Michael Brown, a former inmate who also was housed at Watertown Correctional Facility at this time, testified on behalf of claimant. He testified that he worked as an inmate cook at the facility and that he was working in the mess hall on this date and witnessed the accident. His testimony as to how the accident occurred was consistent with that of the claimant.

Moreover, Mr. Brown testified that earlier that morning, while he was working in the mess hall, he observed civilian cook Kenneth Barajas working on the gear box which controlled the cranking mechanism of the kettle. He testified that the cover of the gear box had been removed, and that another inmate was shining a flashlight inside the box as Mr. Barajas looked inside. He testified that Mr. Barajas had not been able to get the kettle to crank up and down and that Mr. Barajas was trying to fix the cranking mechanism.

Mr. Brown also testified that following the accident, he was asked by a correction officer to sign a witness statement, but that he refused to do so because, according to Mr. Brown, he was not permitted to include his observations of the attempted repairs to the kettle made earlier in the day by Mr. Barajas.

The testimony of Kenneth Barajas, a civilian head cook at the facility at the time of the accident, directly contradicted that of Mr. Brown. He testified that although one of his duties required him to make sure that all equipment is in proper working condition, he never fixes the equipment himself, but reports any such problems to the maintenance department. He specifically testified that on the day of the accident, he never attempted any repair work on kettle #1, nor did he notice any problem with kettle #1 prior to claimant's accident. He testified that he did not remove the cover of the gear box, nor had he encountered any problems with the cranking mechanism prior to the incident.

Neville Sachs, an engineering expert specializing in "mechanical equipment reliability"[1]
, testified on behalf of the State. Prior to his testimony, Mr. Sachs had examined a similar kettle at the correctional facility, but did not examine the kettle which was involved in this accident since it had been removed from service. He concluded that the accident was caused by a failure of the "spring pin" or "roll pin" in the drive tilting mechanism of the kettle. He testified that this pin had sheared at both ends, causing a gear on the crank handle shaft to slide forward, which then caused the kettle to tip forward. He further testified that the pin is located in the tilt shaft mechanism, which itself is located in a covered box, so that visual inspection would not have disclosed the faulty pin. Furthermore, Mr. Sachs testified that even if the cover had been removed, since the pin had sheared at both ends, a visual inspection would not have alerted anyone to a potential problem with the pin. He also testified that this type of pin rarely breaks as it did in this matter, and that the particular type of fracture of the pin was caused not by failure due to excessive wear, but from separate individual loads.
Inmates, while working in correctional facilities, are entitled to a workplace that is reasonably safe under the prevailing circumstances (
Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910). However, the mere occurrence of an accident in the workplace carries with it no presumption of negligence on the part of the State (Fitzgerald v State of New York, 28 Misc 2d 283). In this matter, and as previously stated, claimant contends that the State should be liable for this workplace injury based upon either common law negligence or the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.
The theory of
res ipsa loquitur gives rise to a permissible inference of negligence, when claimant establishes that (1) the event does not usually occur in the absence of negligence, (2) the instrumentality that caused the event was within the exclusive control of the defendant, and (3) the claimant did not contribute to the cause of the accident (Dermatossian v New York City Tr. Auth., 67 NY2d 219; States v Lourdes Hosp., 100 NY2d 208).
In this case, there is no question that claimant has satisfied the second and third elements of this doctrine. Testimony confirmed that the defendant had exclusive control over the steam kettles, and claimant was performing his normal work duties, and nothing more, when the kettle tipped, spilling the boiling water, oil and rice on him.

With regard to the first element of
res ipsa loquitur, that the event does not usually occur in the absence of negligence, claimant contends that the State did not have in place any regular inspection and maintenance program to ensure the proper and safe mechanical function of these kettles. If such a program had been implemented by the State, claimant further contends that a regular inspection, requiring a removal of the gear box cover and visual inspection of the interior mechanism, would have led to the discovery of the defective pin prior to the accident involving claimant.
In fact, the testimony of Terry Biedekapp, a civilian head cook at Watertown Correctional Facility at the time of this accident, confirmed that the kitchen equipment, including the steam kettles, were inspected on a weekly basis, but only for cleanliness. There was no regular inspection of mechanical operations or any set schedules for routine maintenance.

On the other hand, the owner's manual for the steam kettle (see Exhibit 17) specifically states that such kettles require very little preventive maintenance, other than daily cleaning. Additionally, the testimony of Neville Sachs, defendant's engineering expert, established, without contradiction, that a visual inspection of the gear mechanism would not have revealed any potential problems with the roll pin.

Based on the foregoing, the Court finds that the failure of the State to have in place a regular inspection program for these steam kettles is not sufficient to establish negligence against the State under the doctrine of
res ipsa loquitur. No such program was required or suggested by the manufacturer, and there was no testimony to establish that even with such a regular inspection program that the defective pin would have been discovered, thereby preventing this accident.
res ipsa loquitur cannot be utilized, the Court must consider whether the State is liable under basic principles of negligence. Therefore, in order to prevail on this claim, claimant must establish by a fair preponderance of the evidence that the State either created, or had actual or constructive notice of, a foreseeably dangerous condition, and if so, failed to take proper measures to correct said dangerous condition within a reasonable time (Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836).
As previously discussed herein, claimant presented the testimony of former inmate Michael Brown who not only was an eyewitness to the accident, but also testified that he had observed the civilian cook, Kenneth Barajas, attempting to repair the crank mechanism on the steam kettle earlier that day, prior to the accident. This testimony, however, was directly contradicted by the testimony of Mr. Barajas, who categorically denied that he attempted any such repairs.

As the trier of facts, it is the responsibility of the Court to assess the credibility of witnesses and to determine the weight, if any, to be given to such testimony (
LeGrand v State of New York, 195 AD2d 784, lv denied 82 NY2d 663; Johnson v State of New York, 265 AD2d 652). In this trial, the Court found Mr. Brown, who must be considered an impartial witness, to be most credible, and his testimony was consistent and straight-forward. Interestingly, the Court notes that Mr. Brown refused to sign a prepared statement as a witness to the accident, since such statement did not include his observations from the morning of the accident. The Court also finds it plausible that even if Mr. Barajas was experiencing a problem with the crank mechanism of the kettle, he might have decided to wait until after preparation of the meal in process before reporting such problem to the maintenance department.
Accordingly, the Court finds and concludes that the State did have actual notice of a defect in the proper operation in the steam kettle, and that it had an opportunity to take corrective measures prior to the time of claimant's accident. The State therefore had a duty, after being placed on such notice, to remove it from operation. Instead, a decision was made to keep this steam kettle in service so that all inmates of the facility would be timely served their meals. Such a decision, however, placed claimant at risk, and led to his unfortunate accident during the preparation of this meal.

Based on its finding that the State had actual notice of a defect in the operation of the crank mechanism of the steam kettle, the Court hereby finds that the State failed to take reasonable measures to provide claimant with a reasonably safe workplace, and must be held liable for the injuries sustained by claimant in this accident. Furthermore, there was no testimony or any other evidence to suggest that claimant contributed in any manner toward this accident. Therefore the State must be held fully liable for the injuries suffered by claimant.

The Clerk of the Court is hereby directed to enter an interlocutory judgment on the issue of liability in accordance with this decision. The Court will set this matter down for trial on the issue of damages as soon as practicable.

Any motions not heretofore ruled upon are hereby denied.


December 10, 2003
Syracuse, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

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