New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

CARRINGTON v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2003-016-024 , Claim No. 98101


Claim arising from collapse of jury table was dismissed; res ipsa loquitor did not obtain under the circumstances.

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:
Mark E. Seitelman Law Offices, P.C.By: Glenn A. Herman, Esq.
Defendant's attorney:
Eliot Spitzer, Attorney GeneralBy: Albert Masry, AAG
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
March 25, 2002
New York

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

This is the decision following the trial on liability of the claim of Orin Carrington arising from the collapse of a table on January 30, 1997 while he was serving as a juror in Supreme Court, Kings County.

Mr. Carrington testified that the jurors had been taken from the courtroom into the jury room for lunch. Carrington, who was the foreman in this murder trial, sat at the head of the table. The other 11 jurors were in the room, although not all of them were seated at the jury table; some were moving around.
There were no court officers in the room. Claimant describes what happened next:
I was about to have lunch when the conference table collapsed on my knees. When this table collapsed I was afraid and I tried to jerk it away from me that's when I got hurt..all of a sudden it just collapsed...It was approximately 2:10 in the afternoon.

The totality of what Mr. Carrington added on direct testimony is as follows:

- Prior to the collapse, he had been sitting at the table for "two or three minutes;"
- The table was supported by two legs at the far end and a pair in the middle; claimant's end was propped up by a couple of chairs - - there were no legs there;

- Prior to the collapse, he did not observe anything wrong with the table.
- He first became aware that the table at his end was supported by chairs after it had collapsed.
On cross-examination, claimant initially responded that he did not recall how long he had been serving as a juror before the table gave way. When asked how many days the jury had been deliberating, the witness was unclear as to whether that included a day or days prior to the accident; he does remember coming back after the collapse and completing deliberations.

When asked by defendant's counsel if, on prior breaks, he was returned to the room where he was injured, Mr. Carrington said he "believed we went outside." When the follow up question sought an explanation of "outside" - - that it perhaps meant that the jurors only went outside the courtroom, not the courthouse - - claimant answered: "I don't recall going back to that between...this case."

Claimant repeated on cross-examination what he had stated on direct testimony, that prior to the incident, he had not seen the chairs holding up the table, had no knowledge of its faulty condition and thus had never complained about the table to any court personnel.
Nor did he have any knowledge of what caused it to fall, for example, if anyone had pushed it. He did not testify about the size of the table or what it was made of. Carrington could not say how the supporting chairs were positioned, he did not know what kind of chairs they were, when they were put there or who put them there.
At trial, only the claimant testified. No photographs were entered into evidence, nor were any other exhibits submitted. Claimant attempted to enter into evidence an incident report, but without a certification or a foundation witness, was unable to do so. The only information received besides Mr. Carrington's recollection of events at the September 23, 2002 trial were those portions of his sworn testimony given pursuant to §50-h of the General Municipal Law, which were used for impeachment purposes. The §50-h hearing was conducted on January 23, 1998, not quite a year after the table collapse, and Carrington conceded that his recollection of events was superior at that time.

In 1998, claimant testified that there were jury deliberations on the day before his accident, that they took place in the same room, and that he was in the jury room for "hours" before the table fell on him. Carrington did not seek to reconcile his inconsistent prior 50-h testimony; at trial, he simply said that he could not recall.

There is no question that the table collapsed on Mr. Carrington while he was doing his civic duty, and, in fact as noted,
he continued thereafter and completed his jury service. That jurors should have to work under these conditions is, to say the least, highly inappropriate, but such does not necessarily mean that negligence on the part of the State was the proximate cause of Carrington's mishap.
The state is not an insurer.
Mochen v State of New York, 57 AD2d 719, 396 NYS2d 113 (4th Dept 1977). In a case of this kind, a defendant will be subject to liability if it created the condition, had notice thereof, actual or constructive (Bernard v Waldbaum, Inc., 232 AD2d 596, 648 NYS2d 700 [2d Dept 1996]), and sufficient time to remedy the condition, but failed to do so, Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836, 501 NYS2d 646 (1986). Claimant seeks reliance upon the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur which permits, but does not require, the trier of fact to infer negligence from the prevailing circumstances. The elements of the doctrine as set forth by the Court of Appeals are as follows:
First, the event must be of a kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone's negligence; second, it must be caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant; and third, it must not have been due to any voluntary action or contribution... (Kambat v St. Francis Hospital, 89 NY2d 489, 494, 655 NYS2d 844, 846 (1997)
Kambat was a medical malpractice case - - a pad was left inside a patient during surgery. Malpractice cases offer classic instances of res ipsa loquitur especially as to the exclusive control factor, but claimant also points to a case involving a collapsing chair at a wedding reception, Finocchio v Crest Hollow Club at Woodbury, Inc. 184 AD2d 491, 584 NYS2d 201 (2d Dept 1992). Note that both Kambat and Finocchio involved reversals for failing to give the jury the requested res ipsa loquitur charge (PJI 2:65), and a new trial was ordered in each case.
As to the
res ipsa inference, there is little or no evidence in the record as to who controlled the room, who was responsible for its maintenance, and how and when the table came to be broken and then propped up. At the threshold is the issue of which level of government is the responsible entity - - the State or the local government, such as the City of New York. This has been the subject of legislation; under CPLR 4511(a), of course, judicial notice of New York State's laws and official rules is taken without request from counsel. Chapter 686 of the Laws of 1996 added §39-b to the Judiciary Law, effective April 1, 1998 -- after the instant cause of action arose. The Memorandum of Support for Chapter 686 provides, in part, that :
Under present law, counties and cities, including New York City, are responsible for the provision of "suitable and sufficient" facilities for use by the State's major trial courts...we propose that the State assume responsibility for managing the interior cleaning of court facilities (including the making of minor repairs) and for sustaining the costs thereof. 1996 McKinney's Session Laws of New York, pp. 2618 & 2695.

See also Part 34 of 22 NYCRR which is entitled, "Guidelines for New York State Court Facilities." Section 34.2 of Part 34 is intended to give effect to Judiciary Law §39-b
. Paragraph 3 of §34.2(b) defines "minor repairs" to mean "such repairs as are required to replace a part, to put together what is torn or broken, or to restore a surface or finish." The definition may well be narrowed later on in the paragraph, although such is ambiguous and as indicated, the law and its accompanying rules did not take effect until after Mr. Carrington's unfortunate jury experience. But the point here is that the issue had to be developed at trial and was not.
Claimant did request at the close of his evidence that the Court take judicial notice that the State is responsible for such a courtroom, the deliberating room and its contents. In light of the above discussion and with no information on the subject offered into evidence,
such notice will not be taken. The adduced evidence surrounding Carrington's claim is so scant, that subjecting it to the res ipsa loquitur doctrine or ultimately, relying on the doctrine to infer negligence, rests upon too many assumptions. Claimant implicitly recognized this reality by contending that necessary elements in his case were judicially noticeable. Moreover, claimant's differing recollections on the two occasions that he gave sworn testimony do not help his case.
res ipsa loquitur cannot be utilized, then the basic principles of negligence come into play. No information as to how the condition was created is in the record. There is no evidence that any person whose knowledge could be imputed to the State observed the condition or should have observed it. Claimant, who was sitting right there, maintained that he never noticed that the table was propped up until after the table collapsed. It is impossible to determine if there was a sufficient length of time prior to the accident to remedy the situation, inasmuch as no such period of time was offered into evidence.
In view of the foregoing, Orin Carrington has failed to prove his case by the fair preponderance of the credible evidence and his claim (no. 98101) is therefore
dismissed. Any prior motion that has not been ruled upon is hereby denied.

March 25, 2002
New York, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims