New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

DAVIS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2004-009-129, Claim No. 106378


Synopsis


Claimant sought damages for personal injuries when he fell in two separate incidents from his top bunk bed while incarcerated at Watertown Correctional Facility. Claimant alleged that the State was negligent in failing to provide him with safe means of access to and from his assigned bunk. With regard to the first incident, the Court found that the State had no notice that claimant had difficulty in accessing his bunk, and claimant had never disputed this assignment prior to his fall. With regard to the second incident, however, the Court did find that the State had prior notice (the first fall), 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 (e.g., a chair or a ladder), and therefore found the State liable for the second incident only.

Case Information

UID:
2004-009-129
Claimant(s):
TREMAIN S. DAVIS
Claimant short name:
DAVIS
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
106378
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
NICHOLAS V. MIDEY JR.
Claimant's attorney:
ROTHSCHILD LAW FIRM, P.C.
BY: Martin J. Rothschild, Esq.,Of Counsel.
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER
Attorney General
BY: Timothy P. Mulvey, Esq.,
Assistant Attorney GeneralOf Counsel.
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
June 23, 2004
City:
Syracuse
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision
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 floor.

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 Facility.

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 York, 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.


June 23, 2004
Syracuse, New York

HON. NICHOLAS V. MIDEY JR.
Judge of the Court of Claims