New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

JAMES v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2003-028-005, Claim No. 105375


Claimant was injured when transformer slid off cart while inmate was attempting to move the transformer. Claim dismissed.

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: Michael Friedman, Esq.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
June 13, 2003

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

This claim arose on December 23, 1999 when the Claimant, Michael James, sustained injuries to his left shoulder, arm, hand and fingers while attempting to move a transformer at Franklin Correctional Facility (Franklin CF) where he was incarcerated. Claimant alleges that the Defendant created and allowed a dangerous condition to exist and did otherwise fail to provide Claimant with safety equipment as he attempted to move the transformer. This decision addresses only the issue of liability as the trial was bifurcated.

The Claimant was the sole witness to testify on his case-in-chief. On December 23, 1999, Claimant, a painter, was sitting in a room in the "work control" building with two other people when an unknown uniformed correction officer directed him to move a transformer[1]
that was seated on a cart in the hallway. Claimant testified that he protested this assignment, stating "it's not my job, I'm a painter." The correction officer then gave Claimant a direct order to move the transformer. Claimant proceeded to the transformer and "went to the front" of the cart, i.e., the end without the handle. He then placed his hand on top of the transformer to determine how heavy it was and how much pressure would be required to move it and "it slipped over on me." Claimant testified he tried to stop the transformer but the cart slipped out from underneath and the transformer fell forward and hit the left side of his body. Claimant described the cart as about five feet in length and three feet wide having three wheels and a fixed "horseshoe shaped" handle on one end. Claimant stated that there was one wheel located on each side of the cart and the third wheel was centered on the handle end of the cart. Finally, he offered that the bed of the cart was "iron". According to Claimant, the transformer, which had doors on the front, was in the same spot in the work control building for approximately two weeks prior to this incident. On cross-examination, Claimant testified he saw a single inmate, whom he described as being approximately six feet tall and 200 pounds with a "wide build," push the cart and transformer approximately 40 feet from near the doorway to its location on December 23, 1999.
Claimant, 5'6" and 150 pounds, did not think he could move the cart and transformer himself due to his smaller stature. Yet, he did not ask for any assistance.
In response to the Court's questions, Claimant described the transformer's location upon the cart as being flush with the front of the cart and as extending a little more than half of the cart's length[2]
. It extended one to two inches beyond the cart's width on one side and about five inches on other side. On rebuttal, Claimant testified he was unaware the handle on the cart could be moved.
The Defendant called Tyler White to testify. White has been employed by the Defendant at the Franklin CF for 13 years as a general mechanic where his duties included the maintenance of the mess hall and SHU buildings. White regularly supervised two inmates on his work crew.

White testified he was present when Claimant was injured. He described the area where the accident happened as having a podium for a correction officer to observe the inmates and behind that was the supervisor's office, which had windows. Inmates would congregate at a picnic table in this area waiting for their assignments. There was a walkway marked by yellow tape. Although unable to fix the amount of time the transformer was present in this area of the work control building, White testified that he had in the past seen inmates leaning on the box. Prior to the accident, White stated he saw Claimant "leaning on the transformer" but White did not keep his eye on Claimant. White placed Claimant on the left-hand side of the cart as he was approaching - "not on either of the ends." White testified he next saw Claimant trying unsuccessfully to stop the transformer as it tipped "away from" the Claimant. White stated Claimant's hand was pinned to the floor. Unable to move the transformer himself, White "yelled for other inmates" to come help lift the transformer from Claimant. White checked that Claimant was able to move his fingers and hand and, over Claimant's protests, White escorted Claimant to the infirmary. Finally, White testified the cart was made of wood and that the handle could be located on either end. White stated he was "certain" that the cart had four wheels, one located on each corner. In his experience, he never had trouble with similar carts tipping.
Inmates participating in work programs during incarceration do not receive the protection afforded by the Labor Law (
D'Argenio v Village of Homer, 202 AD2d 883, 884). Defendant nonetheless owes a duty to exercise reasonable care to provide for their safety with reasonably safe machinery and adequate warnings, instruction and supervision for the safe operation of that machinery (Callahan v State of New York, 19 AD2d 437, affd 14 NY2d 665; see also Maldonado v State of New York, 255 AD2d 630), although "[t]he mere happening of an accident carries with it no presumption of negligence on the part of the State [citation omitted]" (Fitzgerald v State of New York, 28 Misc 2d 283, 285). Moreover, "where an inmate fails to use ordinary care and pursues a dangerous course of conduct, he or she is required to take some responsibility for his or her own negligence [citations omitted]" (Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877, 878).
Claimant has the burden of proving the State liable by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence (see PJI 1:23). The trial court, in its capacity as trier of the facts, must view the witnesses and consider their statements upon direct and cross-examination in determining whether the witness is credible and the weight, if any, to be given to the evidence (
see PJI 1:8, 1:22, 1:41; see also Johnson v State of New York, 265 AD2d 652; De Luke v State of New York, 169 AD2d 916).
Upon review and careful consideration, the Court finds that Claimant's rendition of how the transformer came to fall upon him is simply incredible. The Court rejects his testimony that the cart had only three wheels. Based on Claimant's description of the transformer and its location on the cart, the transformer would likely have tipped the cart long before Claimant approached, an occurrence belied by its lengthy presence in the work control building. Moreover, given the transformer was clearly very heavy, the Court finds that Claimant did more than just place his hand upon the top of the transformer, a conclusion buttressed by the fact his hand was pinned beneath the transformer (
see also Exhibit 2 ["inmate attempted to move electrical transformer from cart"]). Despite Claimant's protestations, there was nothing unreasonable in his being directed to move the transformer. The record is devoid of any evidence reflecting the Defendant's negligence or what steps were available to prevent this accident from occurring, particularly where, as here, the evidence establishes the carts were not prone to tipping and the transformer had been wheeled to its present location by a single inmate using the cart in issue. This Court finds Claimant's actions and his decision to move the transformer without assistance to be the sole proximate cause of his injuries.
Based on the foregoing, the Court finds that Claimant has not proved by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence that negligence on the part of the State proximately caused the injuries that he sustained on December 23, 1999. The Court therefore dismisses the claim, and directs the Chief Clerk to enter judgment accordingly.

Any motions on which the Court previously reserved judgment or which were not previously decided are now denied.

June 13, 2003
Albany, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] Although the weight of the transformer was never established, the evidence established that it was a heavy object.
[2] Claimant demonstrated the measurements using a fixture in the Courtroom.