New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

SPIESS v. STATE OF NEW YORK, #2004-034-014, Claim No. 106788


Synopsis


Claim for personal injuries sustained as a result of a fall from a bench at Allegany State Park denied and dismissed. Sole legal cause of the accident was Claimant's misuse of the bench as a step stool, and the failure to account for his physical limitations and 450-pound weight.

Case Information

UID:
2004-034-014
Claimant(s):
JAMES AND LEONA SPIESS
Claimant short name:
SPIESS
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
106788
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
MICHAEL E. HUDSON
Claimant's attorney:
BRIAN CHAPIN YORK, ESQ.
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER
New York State Attorney General
BY: WENDY E. MORCIO, ESQ.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
March 18, 2005
City:
Buffalo
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision
Claimants filed this action to recover for injuries allegedly sustained by James Spiess when he fell as he attempted to stand on a park bench at Allegany State Park. By agreement of the parties the liability claims became bifurcated from damage issues, and proceeded to trial on December 2 and 3, 2004. At the conclusion of proof the parties requested the opportunity to make post-trial and reply submissions, all to be completed by no later than January 26, 2005. Now, having considered the testimony of both Claimants, as well as that of three employees of the park, Mandy Lendvay, George Wyman and Robert Neal, the deposition excerpts from a fourth employee, Julie Kenyon, and upon review of the 24 exhibits introduced into evidence, I will deny and dismiss the claim, finding as follows.

Allegany State Park is a 65,000-acre facility operated by the State of New York in Cattaraugus County, adjoining the Pennsylvania border. For purposes of administration the park has been divided into two sections, "Red House" and "Quaker." Among the recreational opportunities offered at the park are camping facilities, both in cabins and open campgrounds. The park has a total of approximately 360 rental cabins, mostly one- to three-bedroom structures of varying configurations. Each cabin also is allocated a movable park bench, commonly positioned on the front porch or fire pit area (
see Exhibit L). Rentals are made through an administrative office in the Red House section. Approximately 140 of those cabins are situated within Red House, on trails extending over an area of approximately 3,000 acres. The cabin trails are located at varying distances - some as much as five miles - from the rental office. Anderson Trail, where the incident occurred, is between one-half and one mile from the administration building.
It is the longstanding but unwritten policy of the park not to have its rental staff open cabin units to show prospective renters, or provide them keys to open those cabins on their own. Instead, interested persons are given information sheets (Exhibits A and B) from which they can determine the number of bedrooms in a particular cabin, as well as information concerning the existence of stoves and refrigerators, fireplaces, electricity and heat. Those who wish to see inside cabins are told to look through their windows. At times prospective renters also are advised that if cleaning or maintenance personnel are working in the area they can ask to view a cabin, although those staff members are not obligated to show any units. According to George Wyman, who has served in managerial capacities at the park since 1993, that policy has not given rise to complaints or incidents other than this suit. The park manager explained that the policy is motivated by both safety and security concerns, in view of the isolation of the cabins and the need to monitor key distribution for the thousands of patrons interested in cabin rentals each year.

In the early afternoon of Sunday, October 15, 2000, Mr. Spiess and his wife, Leona Spiess, drove to the park from their home in Salamanca, a distance of approximately 8 miles. Their son and niece, both age 15, traveled with them, as did their two dogs. Mrs. Spiess recalled that it had rained earlier in the day, but described the weather conditions that afternoon as "sunny." Their purpose in driving to the park was to locate a cabin for future use, since Mr. Spiess had obtained a disability access pass that allowed for reduced-rate rentals, and his physician had advised him of a need to get more exercise. As they drove through the park they came upon Anderson Trail, a looping road with 18 cabins. Some of those cabins were constructed on short pilings, and thus elevated somewhat from ground level. Each unit featured a covered front porch accessible by a short set of steps (Exhibits 1-6, 8, 9). The first two of those units, Cabins 1 and 1A, were located on the two short prongs of a Y-shaped roadway that jutted off the main road. Claimants drove past all 18 cabins along that trail, but focused their interest on the first two units, and ultimately Cabin 1A, since Cabin 1 appeared to be occupied. I am mindful that State Parks Police Officer Robert Neal, who responded to the incident, testified that the accident occurred at the site of Cabin 1, and made such a reference in his incident report (Exhibit J). I conclude that the officer was simply mistaken as to which of the adjoining cabins was involved, since Cabin 1 was being used, and it would have made no sense for Claimants to request keys to enter a rented cabin. Moreover, neither the incident report nor the officer's testimony alluded to the incident as having occurred at a cabin that had been rented to another party.

The parties next drove to the administration building. Mrs. Spiess exited their vehicle and entered the rental office, where she obtained the information depicted in Exhibits A and B from one of the two park employees working in the office at that time. She requested a key to Anderson Trail unit 1A in order to inspect that cabin, and was advised of the policy of not distributing keys to prospective renters. I accept Mrs. Spiess' statement that she was not told that a cleaning or maintenance representative might be willing to show them unit 1A or another unit, but find that the issue has no significance in this determination, since no such personnel were located in the area of Anderson Trail at that time. I further find that Mrs. Spiess was advised that if she wanted to see what the inside of cabins looked like, she should simply look through the windows. I also accept that the park representative, in all likelihood rental clerk Mandy Lendvay, used a plural reference to "windows" as she made that statement, although in the context of cabin viewings in general. Again, that determination is not significant in my decision.

After Mrs. Spiess returned to their van the parties drove back to Anderson Trail without reviewing the paperwork they had been provided. They parked near Cabin 1A, and exited their vehicle. While their son and niece played with the dogs in an area to the front of the units Mrs. Spiess walked up onto the porch of Cabin 1A and looked into the one window located on its front side. Her view was partly obstructed by something to the inside of the window, and she was unable to see the unit to her satisfaction. Mr. Spiess followed his wife onto the porch and also attempted to determine the condition and layout of the unit, although likewise not to his satisfaction. The parties then stepped off the porch and walked to what would be the left side of the unit when viewed facing its front. Two windows were positioned on that side of the building. Based upon Mrs. Spiess' testimony concerning her height, and a review of a photograph (Exhibit 4) of the area in question,[1]
the sills of those two windows would have been slightly less than 6 feet from the ground. Thus, Claimants should have been able to look into the side windows of the cabin, but with views restricted to a slight upward angle that would not have allowed for a full review of the unit's condition and layout.
Claimants contend that as they walked to the side they observed a park bench positioned directly under the closer of the two side windows, with its back touching the wall of the building. That bench, similar to the one depicted in Exhibit 7, consisted of a steel frame with crossing wooden slats along the length of its seat and back. I note the varying estimates of seat height, and accept Mr. Wyman's testimony that he measured the vertical rise of an identical bench seat, and found the distance to be approximately 16 inches from the ground. I have some question as to whether the bench in issue had been positioned exactly as Claimants stated, particularly in light of their failure to call their son or niece to corroborate their claim; again, however, the specific location of the bench as Claimants first returned to Cabin 1A is not significant to my determination.

Both Claimants clearly knew that the bench was intended for sitting, rather than standing. Nevertheless, each of them decided to use the bench to look into the cabin's side window. Mrs. Spiess first stepped up onto the seat of the bench and observed the inside of the cabin. Despite being 5 feet 10 inches tall, and stocky in build, she experienced no difficulty with wobbling or loss of balance in that use of the bench. After she stepped down Mr. Spiess also decided to view the inside of the unit. I note that Mr. Spiess is 5 feet 11 inches tall, and weighed between 400 and 450 pounds at that time. In addition, he was fully and permanently disabled from any lifting or squatting as a result of a back injury sustained in his former employment in March 1997. Despite his weight and physical impairment Mr. Spiess placed his left foot onto the seat of the bench, to the left of center, then attempted to elevate his body and position his right foot onto the seat. In so doing he did not balance or brace his body by grasping the window frame, bench back, or the wall of the building itself. Instead, he used his arms and hands to thrust upward and outward as he attempted to step up with his legs. The bench began to wobble under his weight and/or thrusting motion, and he was unable to lift his right foot up to the seat. Mr. Spiess started to fall backward, and positioned his right foot back onto the ground. As his weight continued to shift backward and downward he felt his lower right leg give way, and his body collapsed backward to the ground, sustaining injury. Mrs. Spiess telephoned the park for assistance, and Officer Neal responded. An ambulance was summoned, and Mr. Spiess was taken to a local hospital for treatment of a reported fracture to his right ankle area.

As with all landowners the State owes a duty of care to those who make use of its parks, namely to exercise reasonable care to maintain its premises in a safe condition in view of the circumstances, accounting for the possibility of injury to others, the seriousness of such injury, and the burden of avoiding such risk (
Preston v State of New York, 59 NY2d 997, 998 [1983]; Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233, 241 [1976]). However, a landowner is not obligated to guard against an obvious danger created by the misuse of property that is not otherwise defective (see Jackson v Supermarkets Gen. Corp., 214 AD2d 650 [1995] [use of store display case as step would not support claim of negligence]). Similarly, "[t]here is no legal duty to protect against an occurrence which is extraordinary in nature and, as such, would not suggest itself to a reasonably careful and prudent person as one which should be guarded against" (Fellis v Old Oaks Country Club, 163 AD2d 509, 511 [1990], lv denied 77 NY2d 802 [1991], quoting Silver v Sheraton-Smithtown Inn, 121 AD2d 711 [1986]). More generally, the State does not act as insurer of the safety of those who enter upon its lands (Tripoli v State of New York, 72 AD2d 823 [1979]). So also, negligence cannot be presumed from the mere happening of an accident, and instead must be affirmatively established by competent evidence of a breach of a duty of care (Mochen v State of New York, 57 AD2d 719, 720 [1977]).
Here, Claimants have failed to establish that the fall and injuries were the result of any breach of a duty to maintain the park in a reasonably safe condition. The bench from which Mr. Spiess fell was not defective in any way, and his injury followed the misuse of that seat as a step stool. Irrespective of whether park personnel advised Mrs. Spiess to look into a "window" or "windows," and whether that suggestion arose in the context of a single cabin or multiple cabins, at no point did park employees recommend that Claimants make use of a bench in order to elevate themselves (
compare Tuttle v Anne LeConey, Inc., 258 AD2d 334 [1999] [homeowner's direction that contractor use wheeled chair as a stepladder created an arguable breach of duty that compelled denial of dismissal motion]). On the proof presented it was not otherwise foreseeable that a policy of retaining the keys to units pending actual occupancy, and a recommendation that prospective renters simply peer through the windows of cabins, would give rise to a risk of a fall from an elevation. The incident instead was extraordinary in nature, particularly in light of the absence of prior inspection-related falls.
Even assuming that park personnel were negligent in their key distribution practices and directions to prospective renters, Claimants would also have the burden of establishing that the questioned park policy was a proximate cause of the incident (
see Sheehan v City of New York, 40 NY2d 496, 501 [1976]). They have not sustained that burden. To the contrary, I find that the sole legal cause of the accident was Mr. Spiess' misuse of the park bench as a step stool and his failure to account for his size and physical limitations as he attempted to stand on that seat. As noted earlier there was no defect with the bench, and I find it significant that Mrs. Spiess, herself rather tall and of stocky build, but without any reported disability, was able to step onto and down from the bench without incident. In contrast, Mr. Spiess, who weighed between 400 and 450 pounds, and was completely disabled from engaging in any lifting or squatting activities, should have been aware of his physical inability to elevate himself through the use of his legs as soon as he raised his left foot up onto that surface. That physical limitation is apparent from his efforts to thrust out his arms and vault himself upward, in order to assist in drawing his right foot up the 16-inch rise to the bench seat. Not only did that thrusting motion cause a loss of control over the physical act of elevation, it also precluded Mr. Spiess from using his hands to brace and balance himself against the back of the bench or cabin when he first attempted to move upward, and then downward as his efforts failed to propel him high enough to position his right foot on the bench. In my view, that serious error of judgment served as the sole cause of the incident.
I understand that if the park had supplied keys or personnel to show units to prospective tenants the incident would likely not have occurred. Nevertheless, "but for" assessments of causation questions have been rejected in this State (
see Sheehan, 40 NY2d at 503; Penovich v Schoeck, 252 AD2d 799 [1998]). In my view, the park's policies merely furnished the condition or occasion upon which the incident arose, and did not work to produce the harm itself. Again, the conduct by which the injuries arose was solely the product of choices made by Mr. Spiess at the cabin site.
The claim is hereby dismissed.

LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.

March 18, 2005
Buffalo, New York

HON. MICHAEL E. HUDSON
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1] Exhibits 5 and 6 depict a different cabin wall than Exhibit 4, based upon the condition of the paint and the differing heights of the windows in those photographs.