New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

IADAROLA v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2005-030-031, Claim No. 104448


Case Information

Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
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Claimant's attorney:
Defendant's attorney:
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
October 24, 2005
White Plains

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See also (multicaptioned case)


Victor Iadarola alleges in Claim Number 104448 that Defendant's agents negligently allowed his descent down a poorly lit, dangerous staircase at Fishkill Correctional Facility (Fishkill) on June 21, 1999 after he had undergone eye surgery, causing him to fall and suffer injury. Trial on the issue of liability was held on July 19, 2005.

When Claimant returned to Fishkill after surgery on his left eye, a protective eye cup was affixed over his eye. He testified that "the operation was so successful I could see everything even with the cup over my eye."[1] At 5:00 a.m. on June 21, 1999 he was taken from his cell at Fishkill for a medical call-out. He recalled walking to the mess hall where he had breakfast, then walking through a corridor and from the corridor to a staircase. He had been down the staircase before - calling it a "shortcut"- but had never noticed anything unusual about it.

It was "very dark" in the stairwell because "the light was out." On previous occasions there had been light. There were no windows in the stairwell going down. There was a light at the very bottom of the stairs that was not working. There was "no banister" - something he had not noticed when he had used the staircase on other occasions. He said: "I made the turn, went for the banister - it wasn't there - and I fell down the stairs. I reached for the banister because it was dark. There were 3 or 4 other inmates behind me as I walked, and there were 2 correction officers. I was the first in the line of inmates. I fell down 7 or 8 stairs, hitting the metal door and my arm went out of place." In considerable pain, Claimant said that he lay there for "about an hour." He recalled officers sending for a nurse, and also recalled an officer saying he "couldn't do anything for him." Ultimately, a nurse came and examined him, and he was taken by ambulance to an outside hospital. He did not recall giving any statement concerning his fall except to hospital personnel.

On cross-examination, Claimant confirmed that his actual fall took place "at about 7 a.m." after having had breakfast. He agreed that the sun would already be up at about 7 a.m. on a day in June. Describing the staircase, he said there was one flight of stairs to the point where he fell, and that the staircase is straight down without any landings. He estimated that he had previously been down the stairwell "2 to 3 times." Officer Brown, and another officer who was a woman - Officer Warren - escorted him. At first Claimant recalled that one of the officers was on the side, while another walked at the back of the line of inmates as the inmates got up together from the mess hall tables to be escorted to the hospital. Then he corrected himself, indicating that there was a male officer leading, an officer at the side, and none at the rear.

The stairwell, he confirmed, is "not too far away." It took about 2 to 3 minutes to get there, first going through a hallway, and then through a door to the stairwell. He remembered that the door was open. As Claimant entered the stairwell, he was about 4 to 5 feet behind the lead officer, who was first to enter the stairwell. Then the officer "sorta disappeared"- Claimant could not see or hear the officer ahead of him. Claimant had never noticed whether there was a window in the stairwell, but had noticed lights there on previous occasions, and that the light had then been adequate to proceed.

He confirmed that as one entered the stairwell there was a landing in a box shape approximately 7 feet to the top of the stairs, and 9 feet wide, and the staircase was to his left. He did not recall any window or light in that landing area. From the doorway, he could see "slightly" the top of the stairs. When the door opened, there was light behind him allowing some illumination. He could not see either the bottom of the stairs or a banister from the top of the staircase. He could not recall if there had been a rail or banister on previous occasions. He fell from the top step to the very bottom of the staircase. There was an open gate at the bottom but no officer was present that he could see. Claimant did not know where the officer who had been leading went, nor did he see him after the accident. He remembered that he lay on the ground for "20 minutes before anyone came", but then also stated that "a sergeant" came within "5 to 20 minutes." He did not recall seeing the inmates and the officers who had followed him down the staircase, but did recall people stepping over him, including people wearing correction uniforms. He recalled the sergeant to be the first person to speak to him. As he lay there, after speaking with the sergeant, the nurse came. From where he was standing it was so dark he could not see the top of the stairs.

On redirect examination he confirmed that the use of this staircase was a shortcut from the kitchen down, but was not always used. He also confirmed that he had difficulty remembering. He said that about 6 or 7 people can stand on the landing at the top of the staircase.

On re-cross-examination claimant averred that it was a "regular door" from the mess hall into the stairwell and that there was no window in the door. The door was closed when he began his descent. "There must have been some light" - but he "had no idea" what the source was.

Carmen R. Warren, a correction officer for 7 years, working at Fishkill since March 1998, also testified. She indicated that she was generally assigned to transport inmates.

On June 21, 1999, she was assigned to transport inmates "on a medical trip" to St. Agnes Hospital during her morning shift. She recognized the Claimant, and remembered him as one of the inmates she was transporting on June 21, 1999. After completing paperwork, she told the housing units which inmates were due to be transported, so that the inmates in turn could be told in time to get dressed and get breakfast. She recalled working with two other officers that day: Correction Officer Isaac Davis and another whose name she could not recall. Davis is still employed at Fishkill.

Officer Warren and her colleagues proceeded to Building 21 and picked up "perhaps 4 inmates." She remembered going through the mess hall to get breakfast and lunch because they were going to be out all day - "they don't sit and eat" - and then proceeding "through the small mess hall to go down the stairwell to go out to the van outside Building 21." She had been in the stairwell before. There are also alternative means to get outside to where the van is parked.

Officer Warren described the stairwell as containing 3 flights of stairs. Coming from the mess hall, one would descend "about 7 or 8 steps" until arriving "at a platform." Then "you go to the right and go down maybe 5 or 6 more stairs" until another platform. There are "maybe 4 or 5 final steps" down to where the gate is. She indicated that there is a light fixture, and a small window, but no doors - "just gates" - and that "she could see" that morning. The walls are a "cream" color, the steps are dark - "maybe black or grey" - and made of "some kind of hard material."

Because she recalled opening the gates, she confirmed that she was in the very front of the line of inmates, who traveled without handcuffs, shackles or other restraints. Further describing the stairwell, Officer Warren said it was normally "dim"- although light came in from a window at the top of the stairs. The window, she said, "is right where the stairs begin when entering at the mess hall." There is a banister on the left-hand side but none on the right-hand side of the very narrow staircase. "Two people could not walk side by side in the stairwell" she said, "but would have to turn sideways to pass." She could touch both her arms to the side walls. She had never particularly paid attention to the railing before, but always held on to it, because she was "pretty clumsy." Since she always held on to the rail with her left hand, she did not particularly notice whether there were railings on both sides of the staircase. She did not recall issuing any warnings concerning the light or the banister.

After entering the stairwell with 4 inmates, she opened the top gate and "we all started walking down the stairs." She remembered being "a few steps ahead of Claimant." When she got to the bottom of the stairs she opened the last gate. "You have to step off the bottom stair once the gate is open," she explained, "because the gate meets it."

After she opened the gate, she heard Claimant "tumble" behind her. She heard him "lose footing," and when she turned around he was lying on the ground outside the gate - he was through the gate when he landed. She asked him what happened and he said he "missed a step." Because of some of the sounds he was making, she could "tell he was in pain." She estimated she was "maybe 3 steps" ahead of him. She confirmed that she did not see him fall, so she did not know from what stair he fell. She did not take any statements.

After instructing the inmates to wait, Officer Warren went to the "delta officer" who was "around the curve" and told him that an inmate had fallen and not to let any inmates through. At that moment there was no sergeant present. She herself did not give a statement, write any "to/from memos" or an unusual incident report.

Once the nurse came, they continued the medical trip without Claimant. She did not recall seeing Claimant again.

On cross-examination, she confirmed that she was familiar with the stairwell and it was used every day. She confirmed that though dimly lit, it was no different from other stairwells in the facility: there are "no bright neon lights" anywhere. When she entered the stairwell she was able to see from the top of the stairs to the first landing - the staircase then changes direction. When one first enters through the top gate, the staircase is to the left and there is a window "right there." There is a short flight of steps down - with a railing on the left - to the platform. She explained that one would stand generally in the middle of the step when holding the railing "because it's narrow." She was not sure if there were railings across the landing, but indicated that "when the stairs begin, there's a railing on the left again."

After the first landing, the staircase turns to the right onto stairs leading further down to another landing. There are no windows in that area. At the bottom of the flight of stairs after the last landing, the staircase again turns right, the railing continues on the left-hand side until the bottom gate. Although shown a floor plan for the first floor and basement of Fishkill that contains the relevant staircase, Officer Warren was unable to utilize it to explain her testimony. [Exhibit A].

She repeated that she used the railing that morning. She could see the steps and landings ahead, as well as the railing that morning. As Officer Warren proceeded down the first series of steps, she heard Claimant behind her, and occasionally turned around as she walked down. When she reached the bottom gate, she stopped, opened the gate, stepped off the last stair - she could not recall whether Claimant was on the platform or on the top stair of the last flight as she opened the gate - she caught a glimpse of him. She stepped through the gate, and then heard the stumble. There is a light in the bottom vestibule "coming from where the delta officer sits and there's a light right in the ceiling, then a few short steps - 4 stairs" - up to get out of the building. "There is a light there too."

She remembered the patch Claimant wore on his eye that morning. She also remembered that he did not indicate that he had any trouble seeing. Since she had transported him from his housing unit through a corridor, a mess hall, the kitchen, through "the small mess hall", up another hallway to arrive at the gate to the stairwell - approximately 450 yards in total - she indicated she had ample opportunity to observe Claimant. Although she conceded she was "not really watching every step he took," he did not appear to have any difficulty walking, and walked slowly and carefully "like an older gentleman."

Correction Officer Isaac Davis, a resource officer since 1996, also testified. He recalled working in transportation on June 21, 1999 on the same medical trip. He remembered Claimant from that day. After receiving his assignment and completing the paperwork, he went to the housing unit with Officer Warren to collect the inmates at 21A Building at approximately 5:30 a.m. He described the process in the same way as did Officer Warren.

Once in the stairwell, he indicated that there is a "regular light on the wall" - as "you go down the stairs there is a light right on wall." He said that the light is not "bright bright"; and that there is a banister on the left as the stairs go down.

On the trip that morning, Officer Davis said the inmates proceeded in a single file down the stairs, walking on the right side. He was in the back of the file as inmates went down the stairs; Officer Warren was in front. Although he remembered there was a third officer, he could not remember whether the third officer was assisting on the line or already in the van. Before June 21, 1999 Officer Davis had noticed that the railing was on the left side of the stairs. He admitted that he never had mentioned that the railing was on the left to the inmates, however, he said the staircase was "used often." He described the stairs themselves as black with no rubber tread that he could recall. He knew they were not made of tile, and that they were old, but he could not say what material they were made of.

Officer Davis remembered that Claimant had an eye patch on that day, but thought it was on "maybe the right eye." He concurred with Officer Warren's indication that they had 4 inmates in line at the time of the incident, and were to pick up several more for a total of 7. He could not say where Claimant was in line, although he knew that there was at least one inmate between him and the Claimant. He did not see the fall, although he heard a noise, and heard somebody fall. Because he was still at the top of the step when he heard the noise, he did not know who fell, nor could he pinpoint where the Claimant was on the staircase when he fell, although Claimant must have been "around the stair from" him. While he knew that either he or Officer Warren spoke to Claimant while he was on the ground, Officer Davis could not recall which of them it was. He did not take a statement, nor did he write an unusual incident report or accident report at the time.

In September 1999, he did write a "to/from memo." [Exhibit B]. He explained that he was told to do a "to/from" 3 months later, and "went back to his paperwork to check the number of inmates etc., when writing it, and also wrote from his own memory." He said he used a log book to check the number of inmates taken that day, and thought he spoke to Officer Warren too. It was either Officer Warren or Claimant who had related the information that Claimant had stated that he missed the step at the time of the accident.

On cross-examination, Officer Davis was shown a floor plan for the first floor and basement of Fishkill that contains the relevant staircase. [Exhibit A]. Using the floor plan, Officer Davis confirmed that he was standing at the top of the second landing when he heard the falling noise. From his standpoint, he could see the steps ahead, and continued to be able to see well as he went down the stairs in response to the noise. He noted that when he had started on his trip down from the top landing, he could always see the stairs ahead, and the handrail to the left as he walked.

Claimant rested after Officer Davis's testimony.

Roger Maines, the plant superintendent at Fishkill since September 1995, responsible for supervising the maintenance department, and for supervising any construction projects, testified for the Defendant. Shown Exhibit A, the witness identified it as the floor plan at Fishkill and further identified the stairwell at issue and where "delta gate" was on the plan. He said he had searched the maintenance records for the facility for the specific area, and found no record of any maintenance or repair requests; nor did he find or know of any prior accidents involving this stairwell.

His testimony essentially confirmed the description of the staircase leading to the delta gate checkpoint on the basement floor as described by Officers Warren and Davis, as containing 3 flights, separated by two landings as one descends. The top vestibule has a window, the middle landing may or may not have a window - the testimony was unclear - and there is a window at the bottom landing. At the bottom of the stairs there is a wire-mesh gate with a metal frame. This was the bottom gate opened by Officer Warren. The staircase only goes in an upward direction from the basement level. Four stairs lead up from the basement to the landing. An additional flight of stairs - "maybe 6 or 7 steps" - go up to another landing. From this middle landing, an additional 6 or 7 steps go up to the top. There was lighting along the staircase - "fluorescent light of some type" - and a railing on one side of all the stairs, but not on the landings.

On cross-examination, Mr. Maines confirmed that any employee can write a work order request but conceded that although they are supposed to write work orders for light bulb changes, correction officers "will change the light bulbs on their own." Mr. Maines also conceded that there was no inmate accident report for this incident on record. He admitted he did not know where the light fixture was in the stairwell, nor could he say how much light it gives off.
Although the State has a duty to protect inmates from foreseeable risks of harm, it is not the insurer of inmate safety. Its duty is to exercise "reasonable care under the circumstances . . ." [Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233, 241 (1976)], to protect against foreseeable risks of harm. See also Preston v State of New York, 59 NY2d 997 (1983). To establish a prima facie case of negligence generally the following elements must exist: (1) that defendant owed the claimant a duty of care; (2) that defendant failed to exercise proper care in the performance of that duty; (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of claimant's injury; and (4) that such injury was foreseeable under the circumstances by a person of ordinary prudence.

Assuming that the State did not create a dangerous condition, a Claimant must show that the State had actual or constructive notice of the condition and failed to act reasonably to remedy it. Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836, 837 (1986). Creation of a dangerous condition constitutes actual notice. Lewis v Metropolitan Transportation Auth., 99 AD2d 246, 249 (1st Dept 1984), affd 64 NY2d 670 (1984). With respect to constructive notice, any " . . . defect must be visible and apparent and it must exist for a sufficient length of time prior to the accident to permit . . . [a defendant] to discover and remedy it . . . (citation omitted)." Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, supra at 837.

It is the Claimant's burden to prove his case by a preponderance of the credible evidence. As the trier of fact and law, charged with assessing the credibility [See Raynor v State of New York, 98 AD2d 865, 866 (3d Dept 1983)] of the various witnesses and evaluating the evidence, the Court finds that the State is not responsible for the Claimant's fall and resultant injury.

In this case there has been no testimony - except for that of Claimant - that the light on the stairwell was inadequate for its use. Although the correction officers readily admitted that the light was "dim", it was no dimmer than at other locations within the facility, and had been traversed with ease by the correction officer preceding Claimant on that day, as well as others on other occasions. This was a trip made during an early morning in June, when natural light from windows at the top and bottom of the stairs would augment what light was provided by fixtures. The walls were cream colored, further reflecting light. On stairs that all witnesses stated were very narrow, there was a banister provided. While the recordkeeping laxity is noted by the apparent failure to document this incident, the uncontradicted testimony was that there were no prior accidents in the stairwell to supply notice of any problem.

Additionally, based upon Officer Warren's observations of Claimant negotiating his path from his housing unit to the staircase, there was no overpowering reason to particularly advise Claimant concerning the location of a banister, or other aid along the way. Claimant himself said that he could see better than he had seen before, even wearing the eye cup, and did not alert personnel to any special need.

Overall, the Court does not credit Claimant's testimony either as to the inadequacy of the light or with regard to the mechanics of his accident. What he appeared to be saying, for example, was that his fall occurred immediately upon his taking the first step off the top vestibule landing, when all other indications are that he fell further down. Although the Court also finds that this may be partly a function of memory loss, it also may be the result of some descriptive exaggeration, and is not supported by the balance of the testimony.

Claimant has failed to prove by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence (1) that a dangerous or defective condition existed on the staircase leading down to the delta gate at Fishkill, and that the condition was caused by inadequate lighting or the absence of a banister; or (2) that the State had actual or constructive notice of a dangerous or defective condition and failed to remedy it within a reasonable period of time. Upon review of all the evidence, including listening to the witnesses testify and observing their demeanor as they did so, the Court finds there is a lack of credible evidence that any defect existed, that Defendant either knew or should have known of a defect, and that such defect was a proximate cause of Claimant's accident.

Claim Number 104448 is hereby dismissed in its entirety.

Let Judgment be entered accordingly.

October 24, 2005
White Plains, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1] All quotations are to trial notes or audio recordings unless otherwise indicated.