New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

SIENA v. STATE OF NEW YORK, #2005-018-487, Claim No. 102529


Claimant successfully established that his fall down a flight of stairs after receiving general anesthesia was ordinary negligence and a foreseeable event.

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:
Defendant's attorney:
Attorney General of the State of New York
By: HEATHER RUBINSTEIN, ESQUIREAssistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
September 19, 2005

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

Claimant brought this action seeking damages from the State for failing to provide the necessary assistance to Claimant after he had undergone general anesthesia on January 13, 1999. Claimant, an inmate, was transported to State University of New York Medical Center, University Hospital (hereinafter University Hospital), a State-owned facility, for a medical procedure related to his kidney stones on the morning of January 13. Claimant testified he was given general anesthesia for the surgery. After the surgery, Claimant had lunch and was discharged. He testified he was walking up a staircase with Correction Officer (hereinafter C.O.) Eric Johnson when he felt lightheaded. His hands were cuffed and he testified that he had leg irons on as he proceeded up the stairs. Claimant tried to hold onto the railing as he felt dizzy, but could not and fell backwards. C.O. Johnson tried to grab Claimant's jacket but was too late. Claimant fell down numerous stairs backwards. He was taken to the Emergency Room where he was treated for his complaints of pain then he returned to the correctional facility the same day. His ribs hurt whenever he coughed or sneezed for weeks after his fall. He still has low-back pain on occasion.

C.O. Eric Johnson testified that he witnessed Claimant's fall. He had been a transport officer for the Department of Correctional Services (hereinafter DOCS) since 1992, and would transport inmates to University Hospital two to four times per week. He testified that inmates entered and exited University Hospital through a separate entrance. Inside the doors was a small landing with a security monitor. Inmates were escorted down 8 to 12 stairs to a security room with a secure holding area for inmates to wait. C. O. Johnson recalled on January 13, after Claimant's surgery, Claimant's hands were cuffed and he was placed in a wheelchair and taken from the fifth floor to the security room on the first floor. Claimant, in contrast, recalled walking the entire way. The decision to discharge Claimant was made by the medical staff.

Claimant was handcuffed pursuant to a DOCS directive requiring inmates be secured during transport. Claimant's hands were cuffed with a black box allowing only about six inches of movement. C.O. Johnson said that the transport officers have some discretion in how they secure inmates, especially after medical treatment. He recalled Claimant having handcuffs only. On rebuttal, Claimant testified he also had on leg irons. C.O. Johnson said after an inmate has general anesthesia, they usually do not use leg irons because the inmates may be "groggy"[1]
and have to walk upstairs to exit the hospital.
C. O. Johnson testified that before Claimant fell, he was walking up the stairs to leave. C. O. Johnson said he walked behind Claimant on the right side up the stairs but moved ahead of him when they reached the top landing to use the intercom. He said Claimant was using the handrail. He testified he saw Claimant start to waiver and tried to grab his coat but could not reach him in time and Claimant fell. Claimant testified he could not maintain his grip on the handrail because the handcuffs limited his movement and reach.

The State moved to dismiss the claim on the basis that this case sounds in medical malpractice. The State argues the decision to release Claimant was made by the medical staff and to establish that Claimant was not sufficiently recovered to leave was a medical determination and that requires expert medical testimony to prove negligence. Also, the State said that there was no medical proof that the damages were the result of his fall. Claimant responded that the back and rib pain after his fall was different from the kidney stone pain, and that a second officer went to make a phone call while C.O. Johnson took him out.

This case can be divided into two parts. First, whether Claimant was well enough after the administration of anesthesia to be discharged is, as Defendant argues, a medical determination intricately related to the medical treatment Claimant received (
see Bleiler v Bodnar, 65 NY2d 65; Berger v State of New York, 171 AD2d 713, 717). To the extent Claimant's claim takes issue with the decision to discharge him, it sounds in medical malpractice and requires expert testimony to establish that he had not sufficiently recovered from the anesthesia for the medical staff to have discharged him. Since Claimant presented no expert testimony, any portion of the claim taking issue with the timing of his discharge must fail.
To the extent Claimant's claim seeks damages for the ordinary negligence of the correction officers in transporting or escorting Claimant back to the correctional facility van after his surgery, the State has a duty to take every reasonable precaution to protect inmates from injury (
Mochen v State of New York, 57 AD2d 719). The State is not an insurer of the safety of prison inmates (Preston v State of New York, 59 NY2d 997). To establish liability, there must be evidence that an inmate's injury could have been reasonably foreseen and the State failed to prevent it (Sanchez v State of New York, 99 NY2d 247, 252; Spadaro v State of New York, 38 Misc 2d, 489, affd 28 AD2d 604; Timmons v State of New York, unpublished decision, Ct Cl, Claim No. 94084, filed February 18, 1999, Silverman, J.).
In assessing the conflicting testimony, the Court credits C.O. Johnson's memory of the events. The Court finds after Claimant's surgery, he was transported in a wheelchair from the fifth
floor to the first floor security area. No leg irons were used on Claimant at that time. In
C. O. Johnson's discretion, he did not use the leg irons on Claimant because he knew that after anesthesia, an inmate could be "groggy." His awareness of the risk of Claimant falling is further evident by his testimony that he walked behind Claimant to the top of the stairs and then told him to hold onto the handrail. His concern and awareness of the potential for Claimant falling required reasonable precautionary measures to prevent this foreseeable occurrence. Use of the other transport officer or C. O. Johnson's placement of Claimant on the landing in front of him could have prevented Claimant's tumble down the stairs. Claimant satisfactorily established that he suffered pain attributable to his fall which was different than the pain associated with his kidney stones.
Claimant is hereby awarded the sum of FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS ($500.00), with interest from January 13, 1999 until July 13, 1999, and from May 30, 2000, to the date of this Decision and thereafter to the date of entry of judgment.
To the extent Claimant has paid a filing fee, it may be recovered pursuant to Court of Claims Act §11-a(2).


September 19, 2005
Syracuse, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1]All quotes are from the trial recording unless otherwise noted.