New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

MANCE v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2006-009-163, Claim No. 106998


The court found the State liable for personal injuries suffered by claimant when a cell door was negligently closed on his hand, injuring his fingers.

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:
BY: Scheider, Kaufman & Sherman, P.C.
Howard B. Sherman, Esq., Of Counsel.
Defendant’s attorney:
Attorney General
BY: Timothy P. Mulvey, Esq.,
Assistant Attorney GeneralOf Counsel.
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
October 2, 2006

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

In this claim, claimant seeks damages for personal injuries suffered by him resulting from an incident which occurred on February 18, 2001 at Auburn Correctional Facility, where he was then incarcerated. Claimant alleges that he suffered injuries to the fingers of his left hand when a correction officer negligently closed the door to his cell on his hand. The trial of this claim was bifurcated, and this decision therefore deals solely with the issue of liability.
At trial, claimant testified that on February 18, 2001, he was an inmate at Auburn Correctional Facility, assigned to cell 29 on the 10 Company A-Block, which was a single occupancy cell. He testified that he had resided at Auburn Correctional Facility for approximately three years prior to this date. At approximately 8:30 a.m. that day, which was a Sunday, he was about to leave his cell for the facility media center, where he was to assist the Chaplin in setting up the church for services. He testified that he heard his cell door “click”
, which indicated to him that his cell door had been unlocked from the “lock box”, which was located at the end of the row of cells on his company. As he started to leave, he turned around to gather some personal effects, including his bible. Claimant testified that he then heard a noise identical to that which occurred when all 43 cells along the entire row of the 10 Company were being closed mechanically from the lock box at the end of the row. Claimant testified that he then attempted to exit his cell, but as he did so he caught his fingers in the door as it was being closed. He then screamed for assistance, and was taken to the prison infirmary for medical treatment shortly thereafter by a correction officer. It is thus claimant’s contention that by closing his cell from a remote location, shortly after releasing his cell door and without regard to his whereabouts, the State was negligent and therefore responsible for the injuries suffered by him.
Correction Officer Richard Vanacore testified that he was the housing officer on duty in the A-Block on the morning of February 18, 2001, and he produced sharply contrasting testimony to that of the claimant. He testified that on the morning in question, he was stationed near the “lock box” area at the end of the row of cells on 10 Company, and that he was responsible for unlocking the cells for those inmates who had been approved for “call-outs” that morning. He further testified that at approximately 8:30 a.m., he unlocked claimant’s cell from the “lock box”, since claimant had been approved for such a “call-out” to attend religious services.
Correction Officer Vanacore, however, stated that despite waiting for several minutes, claimant did not exit his cell. Correction Officer Vanacore testified that he then proceeded down the corridor to claimant’s cell, and informed claimant that he was going to “secure the company”, meaning that all cells on the entire company were to be locked. He testified that he then manually closed and locked claimant’s cell.
Correction Officer Vanacore testified that when he closed the door, claimant was several feet away, and that at no time did claimant’s hand or fingers become caught in the cell door. Furthermore, when he closed claimant’s door, Correction Officer Vanacore testified that claimant made threats against him, and as a result, he issued an “Inmate Misbehavior Report” against claimant (see Exhibit F).
In essence, it is the State’s position, based upon the testimony of Correction Officer Vanacore, that claimant’s hand or fingers were never caught in his cell door, and, quite simply, that the incident which forms the basis of this claim for personal injuries never occurred.
In the face of this diametrically opposed testimony, the other testimony and evidence produced at trial is critical in determining the outcome of this claim.
Inmate Shawn Butler was called as a witness on behalf of claimant. Mr. Butler testified that on the date of this incident, he was assigned to cell 30 on the 10 Company A-Block, the cell immediately adjacent to claimant’s cell. He testified that he did not observe claimant’s cell door being closed, but he was alerted by claimant’s screams. He testified that he then utilized his mirror and saw that claimant’s hand was caught in the cell door. He further testified that there were no correction officers in the hallway at this time. Finally, he testified that after a short time claimant was able to remove his hand from the gate, and that correction officers came to claimant’s assistance and escorted him to the infirmary.
A portion of claimant’s “ambulatory health record” was offered into evidence (see Exhibit 2), containing an entry dated February 18, 2001, which confirms the fact that claimant was treated in the infirmary at 8:50 a.m., on that date. The report contains a statement from claimant that his fingers had been caught in his cell door. The nurse’s note on that record contained an observation that claimant’s fingers were red, but there was no indication of bleeding, broken skin, or swelling. A “Report of Inmate Injury”, containing a similar statement from claimant, was also received into evidence (see Exhibit 1).
Correction Officer Laurence Cheney was called as a witness by the defendant. Although he did not witness this incident, Correction Officer Cheney testified that individual cells could be unlocked by a correction officer pulling on a lever and releasing the lock mechanism contained in the “lock box”. He also testified that a hand-crank mechanism exists which allows all cells on that company to be released or secured by using a mechanical crank (see Exhibit D). He further testified that use of this mechanical crank is limited to emergency purposes and at nighttime to “double lock” all cells, to insure that every cell in the block is locked during nighttime hours.
Finally, Correction Officer Michael McNabb was called as a witness by the defendant. Correction Officer McNabb was the officer who instructed another officer to accompany claimant to the infirmary. As with Correction Officer Cheney, Correction Officer McNabb did not witness this incident. Correction Officer McNabb testified, however, that he made an entry in the logbook pertaining to this event, but this record was not produced by the defendant at trial, and Correction Officer McNabb had no idea as to its location.
When it acts as a property owner, the State is held to the same standard of care as any private landowner (Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233; Preston v State of New York, 59 NY2d 997). The State must act as a reasonable person in maintaining its property in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances, including the likelihood of injury to others, the seriousness of the injury and the burden of avoiding the risk (Miller v State of New York, 62 NY2d 506). Such standard of care applies to the premises within prison facilities (Bowers v State of New York, 241 AD2d 760; Condon v State of New York, 193 AD2d 874). But the State is not an insurer, and negligence may not be inferred solely from the happening of an accident (Tripoli v State of New York, 72 AD2d 823; Mochen v State of New York, 57 AD2d 719).
After weighing and considering all of the foregoing testimony and evidence, this Court finds the testimony of claimant and inmate Butler to be essentially consistent. Specifically, both claimant and inmate Butler testified that claimant’s fingers were caught in his cell door at a time when there were no correction officers present in the hallway immediately outside their cells. This testimony supports claimant’s contention that his cell door was closed from the “lock box”, and not manually as testified to by Correction Officer Vanacore. Further confirmation of this event is provided by claimant’s medical record, which establishes that claimant was seen in the infirmary a short time after this incident allegedly occurred, for treatment to his fingers. Testimony also established that although it was not intended to be utilized at that time of day, a system and mechanism did exist that would allow all cell doors to be closed and secured simultaneously by the hand-crank mechanism from the “lock box” area.
Although it contends that this incident did not occur, defendant did not successfully discredit claimant’s testimony, nor did it provide any explanation as to why claimant might attempt to fabricate such a claim. The Court is also concerned that the report of Correction Officer McNabb, which might have shed some light on the events, was not produced at trial.
In sum, this Court finds that claimant has established, by a preponderance of the evidence, that claimant’s cell door was closed on his hand as he attempted to exit his cell for a permitted activity, that such conduct constitutes negligence upon the part of the State, and that such negligence was the proximate cause of the injuries suffered by claimant. Furthermore, there was no evidence or testimony introduced at trial establishing any culpable conduct on the part of the claimant that would have contributed to his injuries. Accordingly, it is the determination of this Court that the State must be fully liable for the injuries suffered by claimant in this incident.
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.

October 2, 2006
Syracuse, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1]. Unless otherwise indicated, all references and quotations are taken from the Court’s trial notes.