New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

MUHAMMAD v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2003-032-522, Claim No. 97028


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:
David M. Giglio, Esq.
Defendant's attorney:
Hon. Eliot Spitzer, NYS Attorney GeneralBy: Kevan J. Acton, Esq., Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
December 11, 2003

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

Claimant Yasin Muhammad was incarcerated at Bare Hill Correctional Facility during 1997. He was housed in C Dormitory at that facility. At the age of 42, claimant had already been in and out of the prison system for over twenty years. In May of 1997, he was assigned the job of Dorm Recycling Porter, which made him responsible for recycling cans and plastic. Every evening at approximately 10:00 P.M. he would place the plastic and metal recyclables in a slop sink with soap and water. He would then take a can lid and scrape the labels off the cans, rinse the cans out and place them in a plastic bag for disposal.

Exhibit 2 outlines the "Dorm Recycling and Garbage Duties" that were in effect at Bare Hill Correctional Facility at the time of the incident. With respect to recycling, this document states: CANS - one end opened, remove paper labels, wash them with soap. Use a toilet brush (dorm c.o. can get from storehouse) or a green scrub pad to wash with. Black rubber cut resistant gloves are generally available in the state shop for recyclers. Cans must have no food or food residue left in them when they are brought to the recycling center.

Claimant testified that he had seen other porters in the facility wearing the black, cut resistant gloves but that whenever he asked for them, he was told that the facility no longer had any in stock but that he would be provided with a pair as soon as they became available.
When questioned as to how often such requests had been made, claimant testified that he had requested the heavier gloves when he first began working at this job, a month or two before the accident (Tr, p. 14) and a "few" times thereafter (Tr, p. 23). However, claimant acknowledged that he did not request the heavier gloves on the night of May 25, 1997. He knew that such a request would have been unavailing, because the gloves had to be obtained from the "State Shop" which closed no later than 6:00 P.M. each evening (Tr, p. 37).

On May 25, 1997, according to claimant, he was awakened around 10:00 P.M. by a relief officer who was filling in for the regular correction officer. He was directed to report to his work station and told to come by the officer's desk to pick up a pair of gloves. Claimant testified that he went to the desk and picked up the materials necessary to do his job from the relief officer. Those materials included a pair of thin latex gloves, such as those used by physicians during physical examinations. As noted, he did not ask the relief officer for the black, cut resistant gloves on this occasion.

As he was performing his duties, claimant attempted to remove a lid from a can that had contained calamari or octopus. He pulled the lid; it did not come off in a normal fashion but became like a rope or a string. "So, what I did was I pulled, I wrapped the string and pulled. And, when I kept pulling it, I didn't realize that my hand was injured. *** I wrapped my hand around the string and I pulled it" (Tr, pp.19-20). When it was discovered that he had been injured, claimant was taken to a local hospital where he received sutures on the cut to his finger. Eventually, surgery was required to repair the finger's tendons.

Correction Officer Christopher Columbe was the vacation relief officer in C Dormitory on the night in question. Correction Officer Columbe testified that the only contact that he had with the claimant was when claimant approached him after being injured. He denied having awakened claimant or having given him any equipment, specifically denying that he handed claimant thin latex gloves to use on his job. Officer Columbe stated that if claimant had asked him for the black cut resistant gloves they would have been provided, because such gloves were available or could be made available (Tr, p. 42). If they had not had them in C Dormitory, the officer stated, "I would usually call the dorm right next door" (
Prison inmates may be employed by the Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS") and are to be compensated for the work they perform (Correction Law §171[1]). Although inmates participating in work programs do not receive the protection afforded by the Labor Law (
D'Argenio v Village of Homer, 202 AD2d 883, 884 [3d Dept 1994]), the State owes a duty to provide a safe workplace, with reasonably safe machines and other equipment, and to give adequate warnings and instructions for the safe operation of such equipment (Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877 [3d Dept 1996]; Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910 [3d Dept 1992]; Callahan v State of New York, 19 AD2d 437 [3d Dept 1963], affd 14 NY2d 665). On the other hand, if an inmate who fails to use ordinary care and pursues a dangerous course of conduct in connection with a work assignment, he or she is required to take some responsibility for his or her own negligence (Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d at 878). Consequently, claims have been dismissed where an inmate has refused to use proper safety equipment or to call a supervisor's attention to the fact that such protective equipment has become unusable (Maldonado v State of New York, 255 AD2d 630 [3d Dept 1998]; McLoud v State of New York, 237 AD2d 783, 785 [3d Dept 1997]).
As a starting point, the Court concludes that the language used in the job instruction sheet ("Black rubber cut resistant gloves are generally available in the state shop for recyclers.") did not impose an absolute duty on the State to have this equipment available at all times, nor does it oblige inmates who are assigned to the job to wear the protective gloves. "Negligence is essentially defined as the breach of the duty to conform to a standard of conduct for the protection of others against unreasonable risks of harm" (
Kandrach v State of New York,
188 AD2d 910, supra). As indicated, the State did not mandate that inmates engaged in recycling preparation use the heavier, cut resistant gloves, and in fact claimant had successfully, and safely, performed the job for several months. Nor was there any expert testimony to establish that the job cannot be performed safely without such gloves, so long as the worker himself uses reasonable care. In order for the State to be liable for his injuries, therefore, claimant must prove that his requests for the heavier gloves were unreasonably ignored or disregarded.
It is undisputed that claimant did not ask Correction Officer Columbe for a pair of the cut resistant gloves on the night in question, and the Court credits the testimony of Correction Officer Columbe that if such a request had been made, the gloves would have been provided. Weighing evidence and assessing the veracity of conflicting testimony is a responsibility of the Court, as finder of fact (
Vizzini v State of New York, 278 AD2d 562; Colangione v State of New York, 187 AD2d 844; see Savio v State of New York, 268 AD2d 907, lv denied 95 NY2d 758). Officer Columbe appeared to be fully familiar with the equipment and confident that he could secure it, and claimant himself acknowledged that he frequently saw other inmates wearing the gloves in question, further suggesting that they were available, at least to be borrowed, within the facility. It is questionable whether the "few" requests that claimant asserts he made were sufficient to impose a duty on the State to promptly provide them, and in any event, there was simply no corroboration of claimant's testimony that he had made such requests. The officers who could have confirmed that fact were not called to testify by claimant's counsel, and there was no reason given for this lack of testimony.
Finally, the Court rejects claimant's argument that he was unable to take any further steps toward obtaining the cut resistant gloves because he could be disciplined. There is no doubt that, as both claimant and Officer Columbe testified, disciplinary proceedings could and probably would be commenced if claimant refused to carry out the duties of his job. On the other hand, there were many steps that claimant could have taken, short of refusing to work, if he were making a serious effort to obtain the cut resistant gloves. These include making more than "a few" requests, making written requests, or objecting in writing to the absence of the safety equipment that the facility's own procedures stated should be available.

Claimant has failed to prove, by a preponderance of the credible evidence, that the State is liable for the injury he suffered on May 25, 1997. The Chief Clerk is directed to enter judgment dismissing the claim.

Let judgment be entered accordingly.

December 11, 2003
Albany, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims