Claimant, Israel Ocasio, filed claim number 101143 against the State of New
York for negligence relating to injuries he sustained when attempting to light
an oven in the mess hall at Collins Correctional Facility ("Collins") on July
15, 1999. I conducted the trial of this matter at Wende Correctional Facility
on October 6, 2004.
Claimant was a mess hall cook at the time of incident on July 15, 1999. At
5:15 a.m., Claimant was asked to relight the pilot light of the ovens, which,
according to head cook, Linda Priest, go out periodically when the facility
conducts checks of its main generator. While Claimant was underneath the oven,
he brought a lit piece of paper to the pilot, it burst into flames, causing a
first-degree burn to Claimant's left arm and singeing his facial hair. Two
staff logbooks indicate an injury to Claimant while trying to light the pilot at
5:15 a.m. (Defendant's Exhibits A and B). Staff on duty in the mess hall sent
Claimant to the facility hospital, where he was treated for his injuries.
The Inmate Accident Report documented treatment for a minor burn on Claimant's
left forearm (Defendant's Exhibit C). The area reddened, beginning at
Claimant's left wrist, and stretching up his arm 3½ inches. Claimant's
skin was not broken and he suffered no blisters. The medical staff treated
Claimant with Silvadene, wrapped the wound, and instructed Claimant to return in
a few days to check the burn and reapply ointment. Claimant returned to his
work area after spending approximately 10 minutes in the facility hospital. As
instructed, Claimant returned to the facility hospital on July 20, 1999
(Defendant's Exhibit D).
Claimant alleges that he was not properly instructed as to how to light the
pilot light on the lower gas oven, and that he was not warned of any danger
relating to this activity. He also indicated his belief that there must have
been something wrong with the oven because it would not have burst into flames
otherwise. Claimant testified that he worked in the mess hall for three to six
months before the accident occurred and that, during this time, no one had
instructed him regarding how to light the pilot light. Claimant recalled that
he was told just prior to the incident to push the gas button and stick a lit
piece of paper into it. Claimant admitted that he had seen other inmates light
the gas oven during his time working in the mess hall.
Nurse Administrator Linda Koup testified on behalf of Defendant, likening
Claimant's first degree burn to a sunburn. Claimant's Ambulatory Health Record
(Exhibits D, E) indicates that, prior to the July 15, 1999 accident, Claimant
suffered a minor burn on July 5, 1999 on his left forearm and received identical
treatment. The burn was documented as covering ½ inch by 2 inches of
skin. Claimant testified that this burn was an accident that occurred when he
was taking food out of the oven, which he characterized as different than when
the oven "blew up" on him.
Linda Priest, head cook at Collins on July 15, 1999, supervised inmates working
in the mess hall. She was also responsible for instructing inmates on how to
use the equipment. Ms. Priest stood next to Claimant when he attempted to light
the pilot on the date of the incident. She testified that inmates are
instructed and reminded as to how to use the ovens and how to light them in the
event the pilot goes out. In response to Claimant's accusation that he was not
instructed properly, Ms. Priest said, "I would have trained him and being right
there, I would have shown him how to light the first one and we always remind
them how to light an oven." She did not, however, indicate that she
specifically recalled providing Claimant with either instructions or warning
relating to this task. Interestingly, Ms. Priest indicated that she had never
lit the lower oven herself.
Ms. Priest also noted that the pilot light goes out periodically when the
facility checks the generator system. According to her, this was not related to
any defect in the ovens. Ms. Priest stated that the ovens are inspected
regularly and were not in disrepair on the date of the incident. However,
Defendant did not present documentation of said inspections. Ms. Priest
testified that she did not notice any defects in the ovens prior to July 15,
1999. I find no evidence that the oven was in disrepair or that Defendant
failed to properly maintain it.
The State has a duty to provide an inmate who is directed to participate in a
work program with reasonably safe machinery and adequate warnings, instructions,
and supervision for the safe operation of that machinery (
Callahan v State of New York
, 19 AD2d 437, affd
14 NY2d 665),
although the State is not an insurer of inmate safety and negligence cannot be
inferred solely from the happening of an accident (see Killeen v State
of New York
, 66 NY2d 850, 851; Condon v State of New York
, 193 AD2d
I find that the State failed to meet its obligation to provide Claimant with
adequate warnings, instructions, and supervision (
see Martinez v State of New York
, 225 AD2d 877; Rosado v State of New
, 139 AD2d 851). Other than being told to push the gas button and
insert an open flame, Claimant received no instructions regarding the proper
method of lighting the lower oven, nor was he warned of the risk of being
burned. I find that Defendant's failure in this regard was negligent and that
this negligence was the proximate cause of Claimant's injuries. Luckily,
however, Claimant's injuries were relatively minor, suffering a burn similar to
that of a sunburn.
Based upon Claimant's testimony and the other evidence before this Court,
Claimant is entitled to an award of $225.00 for the injuries he incurred.
Any and all other motions on which the Court may have previously reserved or
which were not previously determined, are hereby denied.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.