New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

SANTOS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2003-029-342, Claim No. 102473


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:
John D.B. LewisBy: Gary E. Divis, Esq.
Defendant's attorney:
Hon. Eliot Spitzer
Attorney General of the State of New YorkBy: Dewey Lee, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
December 17, 2003
White Plains

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

This timely filed claim alleges that the State was negligent in failing to provide claimant with a safe workplace. The trial of this matter was held on November 5, 2003 in White Plains, New York.

Mr. Santos testified at trial that on August 21, 1998 he was incarcerated at Fishkill Correctional Facility (hereinafter Fishkill) and was working in the industrial unit paint shop. He said that his job was to spray paint bed frames, which he had been performing since January, 1998. He stated that his immediate supervisor in the paint shop was Mr. Reid, a Department of Correctional Services (hereinafter DOCS) civilian employee. Claimant testified that neither Mr. Reid nor any other DOCS employee gave him any instructions on how to use the paint shop apparatus (hereinafter apparatus) which was used for painting bed frames. Claimant further testified that he never observed any DOCS employee inspecting the apparatus.

Claimant identified Exhibit 2 as a fair and accurate schematic diagram of the paint booth in which he was working and the apparatus as it existed on August 21, 1998, the date of the accident. Mr. Santos stated that one of his jobs in the paint shop was to paint six-foot-long bed frames. To perform this work, claimant was told by DOCS employees to use the apparatus depicted in Exhibit 2. Claimant testified that the bed frames were held in place by a pair of two metal hook assemblies which were attached to an angle iron (Exhibit 2, Letter D). The angle iron was approximately seven feet long and about two inches wide and could hold two bed frames without bending. The angle iron weighed 80 to 90 pounds and required two inmates to put it in place. Four hooks hung from the angle iron (Exhibit 2, Letters A and B). In each pair of hooks, the hooks were 12 inches apart and the bolts were about 18 inches from the horizontal supports. Both two-hook assemblies could swivel 360 degrees to rotate the bed frames.

Mr. Santos stated that each end of the angle iron rested on a group of three wooden blocks (Exhibit 2, Letters E and F). The angle iron was not attached to the blocks. The blocks rested on, but were not affixed to, the horizontal supports and the blocks were not affixed to each other. The witness stated that prior to August 21, 1998, during the eight-month period he was employed in the paint shop, he never noticed any movement of the angle iron on the blocks while he was painting.

Claimant testified that near the open end of the paint shop booth (see Exhibit 2) was an oil drum which was often used as a garbage can. He stated that the drum provided an area on which various small items could be placed and painted. He stated that the oil drum had no function while the bed frames were being painted.

Claimant testified that on August 21, 1998, at about 2:45 to 3:00 p.m., he was in the paint booth. No other inmates or DOCS employees were present. He stated he was painting a bed frame which he had placed on the hooks. He finished the left side and then moved to the right side (side marked B on Exhibit 2). He stated that at the time of the accident, he was kneeling on one knee, spray painting the bed frame. He said that his head was level with the bottom of the bed frame, he then felt a sharp pain in the back, right side of his head. He did not know what caused the pain. He looked up and observed the apparatus falling toward him. He jumped back to get out of the way and his elbow and back hit the oil drum/garbage can. He stated that he observed that the left hook on the right side of the apparatus had broken causing the angle iron, blocks and bed frame to fall. Claimant was taken to the Fishkill infirmary for treatment of his injuries (see Exhibit 3, Page 2).

Claimant called Daniel S. Burdett. Mr. Burdett testified that he is a professional engineer licensed in New York and four other states. The witness's
curriculum vitae was admitted into evidence as Exhibit 5. The witness was accepted as an expert in the field of engineering without objection by State's counsel.
Mr. Burdett testified that the apparatus was not properly designed, constructed or maintained. He said it was an unstable apparatus as the wooden blocks were not fastened to one another or to the angle iron. He further opined that the hooks were not properly designed because they rotated while the bed frames were being painted. He stated that another hook was needed in each hook assembly to relieve the pressure of the bed frame and to act as a backup in case one of the hooks failed, as happened here.

Mr. Burdett also testified that the oil drum/garbage can was an obstruction and should not have been located there according to good and accepted engineering practices. The witness concluded that DOCS did not provide claimant with a safe work place since the apparatus lacked proper design, construction, inspection and maintenance and an obstruction (the oil drum/garbage can) was placed directly behind a worker.

By decision and order filed October 8, 2002, this Court found that the State destroyed the apparatus as a result of its negligence after the instant claim was filed (see,
Santos v State of New York, Claim No. 102473, Motion No. M-64661, Mignano, J.). The Court precluded the defendant from offering at trial any evidence as to the condition of the apparatus prior to claimant's accident and also from offering any expert testimony regarding the apparatus to refute claimant's proof.
To establish a prima facie case of negligence, the following elements must exist: (1) that defendant owed the claimant a duty of care; (2) that defendant failed to exercise proper care in the performance of that duty; (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of claimant's injury; and (4) that such injury was foreseeable under the circumstances by a person of ordinary prudence. When inmates participate in prison work programs, the State's duty generally is to provide a safe workplace, including " ‘reasonably safe machinery and equipment with which to work and adequate warnings and instructions for the safe operation of such machinery and equipment' (
Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910, 913)" (Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877, 878). The mere happening of an accident does not create a presumption of negligence on the part of the State (Fitzgerald v State of New York, 28 Misc 2d 283, 285). The State is not an insurer of inmate safety, nor is it bound by the restrictions and directive of the Labor Law (Maldonado v State of New York, 255 AD2d 630, 631; D'Argenio v Village of Homer, 202 AD2d 883, 884). Such provisions, and the regulations promulgated thereunder, may nonetheless be illustrative of the standard of care applicable to the State in a common law action for negligence (Maldonado v State of New York, 255 AD2d 630, 631, supra; Fitzgerald v State of New York, 28 Misc 2d 283, 285, supra; see generally § 200 Labor Law).
In this case, it is undisputed that claimant was performing his assigned duties at the time the injury occurred. The very nature of this accident, in which claimant was attempting to avoid the falling apparatus upon which he was assigned to work, makes it clear to the Court that the State failed to take reasonable measures to provide claimant with a reasonably safe workplace. The Court does not attribute any comparative fault to claimant and finds the State fully liable for the injuries caused by this accident.

Claimant testified that when he threw himself backward in an attempt to evade the falling apparatus, his right elbow came into contact with the oil drum/garbage can and he felt a "great pain"[1]
. He testified that he also hit his back. Claimant was treated in the facility clinic on several occasions for pain in his elbow (see Exhibit 3). He missed a week of work and then returned to "light duty" where he was required to clean tables. He stated he remained on light duty until he was released from Fishkill in June, 2001. Claimant testified that he took several different analgesics because his elbow was so painful. He said he was taking between 16 and 20 pain pills a day.
Mr. Santos testified that he played softball and handball and also did callisthenics prior to the accident. After the accident, he did not play handball until June or July, 1999, about 11 months after the accident. When he played handball, he experienced pain which radiated from his elbow to his wrist and down to his pinkie finger. The pain progressively worsened and in 2002 he finally had to give up playing handball. Today, he still continues to experience pain in his elbow but it is less severe. He states he gets elbow pain whenever he uses his elbow and when the weather is cold or damp.

Dr. Thomas Spiridellis testified on behalf of claimant. Dr. Spiridellis testified that he is a doctor of chiropractic having graduated from Logan College of Chiropractic in 1981. The doctor's
curriculum vitae was admitted into evidence as Exhibit 6. The doctor was accepted as an expert in the field of chiropractic medicine without objection by the State. Dr. Spiridellis reviewed claimant's medical records and examined claimant on August 27, 1998 and October 8, 2003. The witness concluded that as a result of the August 21, 1998 injury, claimant has a 50% reduction of the movement of his wrist and there is also a restriction of the normal joint movement of the shoulder and elbow. He opined that claimant's pain and discomfort are permanent in nature and that claimant has a limited ability to perform daily activities without discomfort.
Claimant is awarded $20,000 for past pain and suffering and $10,000 for future pain and suffering. No evidence was submitted regarding lost wages or for medical expenses. Therefore, claimant is awarded $30,000 with appropriate interest from the date of this decision. To the extent that claimant has paid a filing fee, it may be recovered pursuant to Court of Claims Act Section 11-a (2). The Chief Clerk is directed to enter judgment accordingly.

December 17, 2003
White Plains, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] All quotations are from the Court's trial notes unless otherwise indicated.