New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

HAMPTON v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2003-016-045, Claim No. 101970


Claimant did not prove his theory that defendant failed to use safety glass in door window through which claimant put his hand, injuring his arm.

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:
Viders & Wiesen, Esqs.By: Mitchell Lidowsky, Esq.
Defendant's attorney:
Eliot Spitzer, Attorney GeneralBy: Anne C. Leahey, AAG
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
June 17, 2003
New York

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

This is the decision following the liability trial of the claim of Trent Hampton, who put his hand through the glass portion of a locker room door at the Farmingdale, Long Island campus of the State University of New York. In the fall of 1998, Mr. Hampton was a full-time student at the college, enrolled as a freshman. In addition to his studies, he was a member of the cross-country team, which practiced four afternoons a week from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

On Monday, October 26, 1998, Hampton had a full day of classes and then headed for cross-country practice, arriving just before four o'clock. Claimant testified that he, along with the other runners, was instructed by the coach to: run the "campus loop,"
come inside the gym for stretching exercises, do a series of thousand meter runs outside and then return to the gym. It was about 5:30 and Hampton was heading toward the locker room to change and to the weight room where the rest of the team was already assembled with the coach; claimant was the last runner in.
The locker room is entered through two swinging, wooden doors (cl exh 1). From the outside, the one on the left is the entry door; "IN" is stenciled in black letters. Reinforcing that directional instruction is the stencil "OUT" on the right door, and to a lesser extent, the fact that only the left door has a metal hand plate. Each of the doors has a small vision panel, about 6 inches across and 24 inches high, to enable someone coming the wrong way to be seen.

Claimant described what happened next:
As I proceeded to enter the locker room, my intentions were to push on the wooden part of the door at eye level, but I pushed on the glass instead, and at that point the glass shattered and broke onto my ...left arm.
The glass, both on the floor and what was left in the pane, was mixed or splattered with blood and was regarded by the school's staff as hazardous waste to be placed in specified red bags and carted away. We did not at trial therefore have any pieces of glass, nor any photographs of the scene right after Hampton's injury; there is a photograph showing claimant's injured left forearm (cl exh 2).
Testimony was elicited from expert witnesses on behalf of both parties that the nature of its fragments would indicate what kind of glass was in the vision panel. Only claimant and Timothy Ryan, a college employee, were able to testify about the condition of the broken glass. Ryan, who has been a plant utilities engineer at the Farmingdale college for over ten years, at the time worked a 4 p.m. to midnight shift on Monday and Tuesday. He described his duties in general as:
We do pretty much anything. After four o'clock the maintenance division leaves and we cover the rest of the campus. We handle all the emergencies and [clean ups] and [fixits] and hold things together until morning.
One of the problems Ryan dealt with regularly was broken glass. He said he cleaned it up on an average of once a week, glass from
"[v]arious places, doors, windows, the dormitories mostly." It is not all the same:
Sometimes it's wire glass, so it just kind of hangs there. Sometimes it would be like a safety glass that breaks all into a million little pebbly pieces. Sometimes it would be regular pane glass where it breaks into icicle shaped shards.
Ryan was a credible, straightforward witness who was familiar with the subject matter. I do not accept claimant's contention that Ryan's December 8, 2000 deposition was inconsistent with his trial testimony. The latter was a more complete explanation that a piece of glass, which he earlier may have suggested was fairly large, was in fact
composed of a number of the smaller pieces strung together. With his relaxed and patient manner, Ryan's explanation was perfectly believable.
Hampton, who was severely injured and bleeding extensively, may not have been in a condition to observe the subsequent form taken by what had injured him. When asked if he saw any glass on the floor after his accident, Hampton responded " I don't remember."
His only description of the glass was that there was a five-inch diamond piece left intact in the door, which was the only glass remaining in the vision panel. Hampton may not, due to his injury, have been able to note and remember whether the relatively large piece was fractured and actually comprised of much smaller pieces strung together. In addition to his situation which did not allow for calm observation, Hampton's overall credibility was undermined by his testimony that as he approached the door to push it with his hand, "I was walking very leisurely." In light of the overall evidence, this was not believable.
Thus, Ryan's description of what was left of the glass - - in the door and on floor - - will be relied upon here. Despite the frequency of times he was called upon to clean up glass, Ryan recalled this specific instance, likely because of the extent of Hampton's bleeding. Consider the following exchange:
Q ... What did the glass on the floor look like?

A. There was all a million small pebbles.

Q. What size was each pebble?

A. About a quarter inch by quarter inch.


Q. Were the pebbles all the same size?

A. Approximately, yes.
Ryan went on to explain that he observed that some of the pebble-like pieces would aggregate together in larger pieces:
Q ... Were all the pieces a quarter inch, or were there any other pieces?

A ... No. There were pieces that were held together, but they all...had the same breakage within them, kind of like the pieces are all held together by like a piece of Saran Wrap. They all cling together. You could pick up one corner and you'd get 20 of them at the same time.

Q. And how big were these pieces that were hung together?

A. They varied greatly. Some were an inch big. Some were five inches big.

Q ...these pieces that were connected had the individual pebbles inside of them?

A. Yes.

Q. And the individual pebbles were they the same size?

A. Approximately, yes.
Ryan added that while the individual pebbles were not triangular, some of the connected pieces were. The witness was quite certain that there were no shards on the floor - - no larger, pointed, triangular single pieces of glass.
As to what was left in the vision panel, Ryan explained that most of the bottom of the glass panel had been knocked out. The top, he recalled, had broken straight across, and the bottom looked like a miniature city skyline, but in each case, they were strung together out of the very small, cube-shaped building blocks. Ryan observed no shards, pointed pieces or (unfragmented) triangles of glass left in the broken vision panel.

Each side put an expert on the stand to deduce what kind of glass would have been in the door given the post-accident detritus. Claimant's case included the testimony of architect Steven Zalben; for its part, the defendant called a safety expert, William Marletta.

According to the experts, there is more than one kind of safety glass; included in such category are tempered glass, laminated glass, wire glass and plastic (Plexiglas)
. Messrs. Zalben and Marletta each explained that tempered glass characteristically breaks into very small cube-shaped fragments, perhaps one quarter inch on a side. On this point, perhaps their only area of disagreement occurred when Zalben testified that an entire sheet of glass would so shatter, but Marletta said he had seen instances where that had not occurred. Ryan had observed that what was left in the vision panel was fragmented, but strung together, suggesting that all of the vision panel had acted like tempered glass; in any event, by his extensive background and demeanor, especially on cross-examination, Marletta had the better of the analysis (PJI 1:90).
The experts' conclusions differed because their factual assumptions differed. As indicated, I accept Ryan's observations on what remained of the glass in the door and on the floor. Consequently, claimant is unable to meet his burden in proving that such debris implied that the glass Hampton broke through was ordinary glass, rather than safety glass (
PJI 1:23, 1:60 & 1:70).
Moreover, Fred Harrison, SUNY Farmingdale's associate director of physical plant who started with the college in 1968, went unchallenged when he testified that the original specifications called for tempered glass
and that such was presumptively originally installed. Mr. Harrison stated that the facility, the George E. Nold Athletic Hall, was completed in 1972, as did Christopher Marcella, an architect who was deputy director of design for the State University Construction Fund. Mr. Marcella testified that the Construction Fund had begun the design for Nold Hall in 1968 and let out a construction contract in 1970, which was completed by the summer of 1972 (see def exh A).
Harrison testified that a search of the records by his office turned up no similar accidents dating back to 1981, which conclusion I found credible. No records were available for the period from the building's opening in 1972 through 1981. Nor does Harrison personally recall anything like Hampton's accident. It seems unlikely that were the vision panel in question previously broken, that what claimant concedes was originally tempered glass would have been replaced with ordinary glass.

Finally, claimant's proof comes down to an assertion that the nature of the injury was so severe that it could only have been caused by ordinary glass, not by safety glass; the Incident Report provides that claimant's arm was " the bone" (cl exh 4). While I comprehend the argument vigorously advanced by claimant that it would take the larger shards of ordinary glass to do this kind of damage, this trier of fact cannot so conclude per the required burden of proof.[1]

It thus becomes unnecessary to reach the issue of whether the sole proper defendant in this action should be the State University Construction Fund, which can only be sued in Supreme Court (Education Law §373-a).
In view of the foregoing, claimant Trent Hampton has failed to show by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence that the defendant breached a duty to him and that such breach was the proximate cause of the injuries claimed for the accident of October 26, 1998; therefore, his claim (no. 101970) is
dismissed. All motions not previously ruled upon are hereby deemed denied.

June 17, 2003
New York, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] A surgeon or a physician with a forensic speciality might have been able to shed light on what it would take to cause an injury like Hampton's.