In this claim, claimant seeks damages for personal injuries allegedly suffered
by him when he fell in two separate incidents from the top bunk bed to which he
had been assigned as an inmate incarcerated at Watertown Correctional Facility.
The trial of this claim was bifurcated, and this decision addresses solely the
issue of liability.
The first incident occurred on June 10, 2002, at approximately 11:30 p.m.,
when claimant fell while attempting to climb down from the top bunk in order to
go to the bathroom. Claimant testified that in order to descend from the bed,
he would routinely climb over the end of the bed onto a large locker placed at
the foot of the bed. He stated that on this occasion, the locker started to
roll as he landed on top of it, causing him to lose his balance and fall to the
When he fell, he struck his right hand on the locker. He was treated by
medical staff at the facility for this injury, and his hand was placed in a
splint with an ace bandage. He was subsequently taken to Samaritan Hospital in
Watertown for further treatment, and at some point in time, his right arm was
placed in a cast extending from midway up his arm down to his knuckles.
After this incident, and on or about June 27, 2002, claimant filed a grievance,
requesting, among other action, an assignment to a bottom bunk due to his
injured hand (see Claimant's Exhibit 12). This grievance was eventually
denied on the basis that the injury to claimant's hand "should not prevent him
from entering/exiting a top bunk assignment". (See Memorandum from J. Okay,
Nurse Administrator to D. Grabiec, IGRC Supervisor, dated June 28, 2002,
contained as part of Claimant's Exhibit 12). In this Memorandum, Nurse
Administrator Okay further stated that claimant would be able to access the top
bunk "provided he followed DOCS policy of using the chair and locker as steps."
After filing this grievance, claimant fell again while attempting to climb up
to his top bunk on July 3, 2002, at approximately 1:15 a.m. Claimant testified
that he stepped up onto a small locker in his cubicle, and as he attempted to
stand up and access his top bunk, the locker moved, causing him to fall.
The Court notes that since this second incident occurred in the early morning
of July 3, 2002, and since the denial of claimant's grievance is dated the same
date (July 3, 2002), claimant presumably had not received the decision denying
his grievance prior to this fall.
Further testimony from claimant established that he had been incarcerated in
the custody of the Department of Correctional Services for approximately 8
years, and during that time he had been assigned to a top bunk in other
correctional facilities prior to his transfer to Watertown Correctional
Claimant contends that the State was negligent in failing to provide him with a
safe means of access to and from his assigned top bunk. Claimant maintains that
he never received any training or instructions as to the proper or safe method
of access to his top bunk, and that correction officers at Watertown
Correctional Facility had not received any training in the proper procedures for
access to these top bunks. As a result, claimant contends that inmates were
left to their own devices in gaining access to the top bunks. Finally, claimant
contends that even if this failure to train inmates cannot be considered
negligence, the State was nevertheless negligent in altering the lockers by
adding wood boards and rolling casters, rendering them unstable and movable, and
therefore unfit for use in climbing.
With regard to these contentions, Correction Officers Jeffrey Nevills, Robert
Cooper, Thomas Lawton, and Willis McIntosh were all called as witnesses by
claimant. None of these officers witnessed either accident, but they were on
duty for one or the other of the two incidents. The testimony of all four
officers, however, was consistent in that they had never received any
instructions in approved DOCS procedures for entering or exiting top bunks, and
that they had never instructed any inmates concerning the proper procedures for
doing so. According to their testimony, no specific instructions are provided
to inmates, and the inmates learn how to access their top bunks on their own by
observing other inmates.
Michael Sears, the Plant Superintendent at Watertown Correctional Facility,
also testified at trial. He testified that the cubicle to which claimant was
assigned is of a standard dimension and size, and was furnished with a bunk bed,
two large lockers, and two smaller lockers. He testified that facility staff
had bolted small wood boards onto the bottom of both the large and small lockers
at Watertown Correctional Facility, and that ball casters had been added to the
bottom of the large lockers, in order to make them easier to move for purposes
of cleaning and maintenance. Furthermore, Mr. Sears testified that these
cubicles were visually inspected on a regular basis by correctional facility
staff. Contrary to the testimony of the other correction officers, Mr. Sears
testified DOCS guidelines existed outlining approved procedures for accessing
top bunks, including the use of chairs, lockers and bunks. He also testified
that correction officers are charged with the responsibility to instruct inmates
as to the proper methods to access their top bunks.
It is well settled that the State has a duty to use reasonable care to protect
the inmates in its correctional facilities from the foreseeable risk of harm
Flaherty v State of New York
, 296 NY 342; Casella v State of New
, 121 AD2d 495). It is equally well settled, however, that the State is
not an insurer of inmate safety (Hirsh v State of New York
, 8 NY2d 125).
The State has a duty to exercise reasonable care in maintaining its property in
a reasonably safe condition considering all of the circumstances (Emmi v
State of New York
, 143 AD2d 876).
With regard to the first incident which occurred on June 10, 2002, there is no
question that the State had not provided claimant, or any other inmate, with
training or instruction as to the proper method to access the top bunks at the
facility. In fact, correction officers who testified at trial indicated that
they were unaware as to what those proper procedures were, and that the inmates
were left to devise their own methods for climbing up to the top bunks.
However, prior to this incident the State had no notice whatsoever that claimant
had any difficulty in climbing up to or down from his top bunk. Claimant, who
testified that he had been in custody for approximately eight years,
acknowledged that he had been assigned to top bunks on several occasions, and
there is no proof in the record that he had any difficulties in accessing the
top bunk at other facilities, or at Watertown prior to this incident.
Additionally, claimant never disputed his assignment to a top bunk at Watertown
Correctional Facility until after his fall on June 10, 2002.
Additionally, the use of the small and large lockers located in the cubicles
(depicted in Claimant's Exhibits 1, 3, 4, and 13) to provide access to the upper
bunk is insufficient, in and of itself, to establish negligence against the
State for failing to provide reasonable access (see
Mitchell v State of New York
, Ct. Cl., J. Fitzpatrick, filed October 24,
2000, Claim No. 96998; Taylor v State of New York
, Ct. Cl., J. Collins,
filed April 28, 1998, Claim No. 92111). Even though the small lockers were
retrofitted with wooden boards, and the large lockers were retrofitted with
rolling casters, Mr. Sears, the Plant Superintendent in charge of maintenance,
testified that there was no prohibition against such modifications, and that
those modifications were made for a legitimate State purpose.
Accordingly, based on the foregoing, the Court must find that the State cannot
be held liable in negligence for claimant's fall on June 10, 2002.
As discussed above, however, claimant suffered a second fall from his top bunk
on July 3, 2002. As also mentioned previously herein, following the
first incident claimant filed a grievance requesting a lower bunk, even though
it does not appear that claimant received a determination on this grievance
prior to this second fall. Based upon its investigation into this grievance,
however, the State must be charged with notice that claimant had encountered
difficulties in accessing his top bunk. Furthermore, although medical personnel
at the facility eventually determined that the injuries that claimant sustained
to his right hand would not prevent him from accessing his top bunk, it was
directed that access should be provided by "using the chair and locker as steps"
(see Claimant's Exhibit 12, Memo from J. Okay to D. Grabiec, dated June 28,
2002). Claimant testified, however, that his request for a chair for his
cubicle had been denied, and there is no indication in the record that a chair
was provided or was present in his cubicle on the date of the second incident.
Since claimant's right hand and arm had been placed in a hard cast, thereby
severely restricting the use of his right hand, the State had a responsibility
to insure that claimant could safely access his top bunk. Since claimant, in
this condition, was not provided with either a chair or ladder, and was left to
fend on his own by using the small and large lockers to climb up to his top
bunk, the Court finds that the State breached its duty to provide claimant with
reasonable and safe access, and therefore must be held liable for the injuries
sustained by claimant in this second fall.
Based on its findings that claimant had requested a bottom bunk following the
first incident, and that the State had failed to provide claimant with a safe
means of access (such as a chair or a ladder) after he had suffered injuries in
that fall, the Court further finds that claimant bears no responsibility, in
comparative negligence, for this second accident.
Accordingly, the Court finds that the State is 100% responsible for the
injuries suffered by claimant in the fall on July 3, 2002.
Any motions not heretofore ruled upon are hereby denied.
The Clerk of the Court is hereby directed to enter an interlocutory judgment on
the issue of liability in accordance with this decision. The Court will set
this matter down for trial on the issue of damages as soon as practicable.
LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.