New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

CLARK v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2006-009-167, Claim No. 105883


Synopsis


In this claim, claimant seeks damages for personal injuries based upon allegations of negligent conduct arising from an industrial accident which occurred at Auburn Correctional Facility, where claimant was then incarcerated. While on work duty, claimant suffered injuries resulting in the loss of his hand and part of his arm when clearing scrap from a press which was used to stamp license plates. The Court found the State 100% liable, in that it failed to properly train and supervise claimant in the operation of this machine, and that the State had failed to install proper safety devices which would have prevented the accident from occurring.

Case Information

UID:
2006-009-167
Claimant(s):
GEORGE CLARK
Claimant short name:
CLARK
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
105883
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
NICHOLAS V. MIDEY JR.
Claimant’s attorney:
ZWIEBEL, BRODY, GOLD & FAIRBANKS, LLP
BY: Majer H. Gold, Esq.,Of Counsel.
Defendant’s attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER
Attorney General
BY: Michael R. O’Neill, Esq.,
Assistant Attorney GeneralOf Counsel.
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
December 28, 2006
City:
Syracuse
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision
Claimant seeks to recover damages sustained by him when he was injured in an industrial accident on March 15, 2002 at Auburn Correctional Facility (hereinafter Auburn), where he was then incarcerated. Claimant was cleaning scrap from the back of a press in the “blanking shop”
[1]
at the facility (part of the process involved in the manufacture of license plates) when another inmate started the press while claimant’s hand was still in the “cove” area of the press. Claimant suffered severe injuries when his hand was caught under the “die”, resulting in the amputation of his left hand and part of his left arm, midway between his wrist and elbow.
The trial of this claim was bifurcated, and this decision therefore addresses solely the issue of liability.
At the outset of this trial, the parties entered into certain stipulations which were on the record. The parties agreed that on the day of the accident, a plexiglass guard and shutoff had not been installed, and therefore were not in place, to the part of the machine in which claimant was injured. The parties also agreed that if such guard and shutoff had been installed, the accident could not have occurred. The parties further stipulated that the manufacturer of the press, prior to the accident, had provided the defendant with various manuals, documentation, and regulations pertaining to its operation and safety.
Dr. Igor Paul testified at trial as claimant’s expert in engineering. He testified that a “point of operation guard” should have been installed at each and every point where one could enter the machine. Specifically, Dr. Paul testified that a guard and interlock system should have been installed at the rear access point where claimant accessed the machine and was injured.
He also testified that notices and manuals provided by the manufacturer placed the State on notice of its obligation to provide proper guarding mechanisms, and that such guards were both economically and practically feasible to install. If such a guard and interlock system had been installed as directed by the manufacturer, Dr. Paul testified that it would not have been possible for the claimant to access the rear of the machine without first removing the guard. Had the guard been removed, the interlock safety device would have automatically shut off all power to the press, and the press could not have been operated until the guard was properly replaced. As a result, Dr. Paul concluded that claimant’s accident could not possibly have occurred if a guard and interlock safety device had been installed prior to the accident.
The Manufacturer’s Warranty (Exhibit 1), the Press Safety and Operations Manual (Exhibit 2) and the Press Service and Parts Manual (Exhibit 3) were all received into evidence at trial. These documents all contain warnings and notices to the purchaser of the press that “point of operation” safeguarding was the responsibility of the purchaser. The Press Safety and Operations Manual specifically notified the purchaser (i.e., the State) that “[s]afety guards and devices should be installed and tested to make it impossible for press operators to place their hands or any part of their bodies under the slide or into any other hazardous area of the machine.” (See Exhibit 2, page 6).
Pursuant to the stipulations previously referred to, it has been established, without dispute, that on the day of this accident, a guard and interlock safety device were not in place on that portion of the machine where claimant was injured. Based upon the testimony of claimant’s expert set forth above, as well as the stipulations, it has also been established that had such a guard and safety device been in place, it would have been impossible for this accident to occur in the manner in which claimant was injured. Claimant’s expert further confirmed that the type of guard which was appropriate for this machine was both economically and practically feasible, and that such a guard has been used quite extensively on these types of machines. Finally, the warranties and manuals provided by the manufacturer to the State establish not only the State’s obligation to install such a guard and safety device, but also that the State had been placed on notice of this obligation prior to the accident in which claimant was injured.
It is well-settled that the State, through its correctional facilities, has a duty to exercise reasonable care in providing for the safety of inmates participating in work programs, and to provide them with reasonably safe equipment (Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910; Callahan v State of New York, 19 AD2d 437, affd 14 NY2d 665; Muhammad v State of New York, 15 AD3d 807). Although an inmate who has been injured in a correctional facility is not entitled to the full range of protection afforded by the Labor Law, when the State directs an inmate to perform work, the inmate is entitled to a workplace that is reasonably safe under the prevailing circumstances (Kandrach v State of New York, supra).
In this matter, it is patently obvious that defendant did not fulfill this duty and woefully failed to provide claimant, and other inmates in the “industry” program at Auburn, with reasonably safe equipment. Defendant not only acknowledges that a guard and interlock safety device were not present on the press in which claimant was injured, but also concedes, through the testimony of claimant’s expert, that such a guard should have been in place at the time and, if so, its presence would have prevented this accident from ever occurring.
Despite this acknowledged failure to provide reasonably safe equipment, however, it is the State’s position that claimant failed to follow certain safety procedures, and failed to utilize other safeguards on the machine, which would have prevented this accident from occurring. The State contends that such conduct by the claimant was a substantial contributing factor in this accident, thereby substantially reducing, if not eliminating, the State’s liability.
Although it is well-established that the State has a duty to provide its inmates with reasonably safe equipment, it is equally well-settled that the State is not an insurer of inmate safety (Maldonado v State of New York, 255 AD2d 630; Colon v State of New York, 209 AD2d 842), and inmates must exercise ordinary care while engaged in work programs (Muhammad v State of New York, supra; Manganaro v State of New York, 24 AD3d 1003).
Including claimant, there were three inmates working on the press at the time of claimant’s accident, and all three inmates provided testimony at trial. Their collective testimony is critical in determining whether claimant, by his own actions, must share or assume total responsibility for this accident by failing to follow proper safety procedures.
Claimant testified that he had been working in the blanking shop for approximately one year prior to this accident, and that he had consistently received satisfactory evaluation reports for his work. On the day of the accident, claimant was working on the press with two other inmates, Samuel Tinnell and John Tyran. Claimant testified that this press was one of three that were present and operating in the blanking shop.
At some point, scrap metal jammed the machine, requiring that this scrap metal be removed before production could continue. Claimant testified that he then went searching for a rod or stick to use for cleaning out the scrap metal. Claimant testified that there usually was such a rod or stick available with the machine, but on that day, for whatever reason, one was not there. However, he went to the machine on “line 2", which also did not have any rod or stick, and when he went to “line 3", the inmates on that machine were using their rod at the time. As he was returning to his press, claimant saw inmate Tyran, and told Mr. Tyran that he was going to use the bathroom. He then went back to the machine and after pushing the “top stop” button, began to pull out the scrap metal from the back of the press by using his hands. As he was cleaning out the scrap metal, the press was activated and the blade came down and caught his hand and arm in the press, causing his severe injuries.
Testimony at trial established that activating the yellow “top stop” button would have resulted in the cutting blade of the press finishing its cycle and stopping at the top of the next cycle. This procedure provided maximum access to the machine for purposes of clearing out scrap metal. Use of the “top stop” button, however, did not shut off power to the machine, and the press could be restarted simply by pushing another button. Expert testimony also established that other buttons accessible to workers were present on the machine. The purpose of these buttons was not only to stop the cutting process, but also shut off all power to the machine. When power was shut off to the machine, however, it took a significantly longer period of time to put the press back into operation once power was restored.
Claimant further testified that he did not receive any training on the operation of this press from any personnel at the facility, and that the only limited training he received was provided to him by other inmates. He acknowledged that he attended a “pre-industry training session” prior to this accident, but that this session consisted merely of a video and did not include any instructions as to the operation of the press on which he was injured. He further testified that he had never received any instructions from his supervisors not to clean scrap from the machine or not to use his hands if he did so.
Samuel Tinnell, one of the inmates who was working with claimant on the day of the accident, also testified. Mr. Tinnell was familiar with the operation of the press, and described the press and its operation. He testified that two people were needed to operate the machine properly, a “press operator” and a “press applicator”. While the press is operating, these two workers are situated on the same side of the machine, and therefore remain within eye contact of each other.
Mr. Tinnell confirmed claimant’s testimony that on the day of the accident, a jam in the press occurred, and claimant went around to the back of the machine to clean out the jam. Mr. Tinnell added that tools were often provided to clean out these jams, but that on many occasions inmates would clear the jams by using their hands.
After the jam occurred, Mr. Tinnell thought that claimant left the area of the press to go to the bathroom, and, after waiting a period of time, he then directed John Tyran, a third inmate who was working on the press that day, to restart the press. As soon as Mr. Tyran activated the press, this accident occurred, and he heard claimant scream from the rear of the machine.
Mr. Tinnell testified, as did claimant, that the only training he received for this machine was from another inmate, and that he also did not receive any training whatsoever from shop supervisors or facility personnel. He also testified that pieces of metal often became caught in the machine, creating numerous jams each day. Although these jams were a common occurrence, he had never been advised, and had never observed supervisors telling other inmates that inmates were not allowed to clean out the jams by using their hands. He testified that no instructions had ever been provided, either written or verbal, about the procedures to be followed to disengage the machine before removing metal chips from the press. He also testified that it was common practice for inmates to clean the scrap by using their hands, and that inmates would do so after activating the “top stop” button.
Inmate John Tyran testified that he was first assigned to this machine the day before the accident, and that he had not received any instructions (whether written or verbal) or any training on this machine prior to the accident. He confirmed Mr. Tinnell’s testimony that he restarted the press operation, upon the direction of Mr. Tinnell, without knowing that claimant was attempting to clean the jam in the rear of the machine at the time.
Daniel L. Kimler, an industrial training supervisor at Auburn who was working on the day of the accident, testified on behalf of the State. Contrary to the testimony of claimant and his witnesses, Mr. Kimler testified that inmates do in fact receive “hands-on training” in connection with the operation of the presses, and that he actually trained claimant in the proper operation of the machine at issue herein.
He further testified that he specifically did not provide any instructions to claimant about clean-out procedures of the press because scrap cleaning was not to be performed by inmates. He testified that inmates were specifically instructed not to clean out scrap pieces of metal, but instead were directed to obtain assistance from a supervisor, who then had the responsibility to disengage power from the press and then properly clean out the scrap metal. He also testified that he was not aware of any inmate who cleaned out the scrap by themselves.
A transcript of the deposition testimony of Floyd Wilson, another training supervisor at Auburn who was also working in the blanking shop on the day of the accident, was received into evidence (see Exhibit 11). In his deposition, Mr. Wilson testified, contrary to the testimony of Mr. Kimler, that inmates would routinely clear scrap from the rear of the presses, without any supervision or approval from their supervisors. Mr. Wilson stated that it was not unusual for an inmate to access the press from the rear, as claimant did in this instance, and that inmates consistently cleared scrap from the rear of the machines, without any such approval or supervision.
Based on the testimony adduced at trial, the Court finds and concludes that claimant did not receive proper training in the operation of this press at any time prior to the accident. The Court finds that the only training received by claimant came from other inmates who had previously worked, or were currently working, on the machines. Of particular significance, the Court finds that claimant received no training whatsoever in the proper and safe methods for cleaning out scrap metal from the machine, and also finds that inmates working on the presses were expected to clear out the scrap metal, and correct any jams, in order to keep the presses operating.
As acknowledged by defendant’s expert, Mr. Sachs, it is the responsibility of supervisory personnel at the facility to safely train and supervise its inmates involved in work programs, and similarly it is the responsibility of management personnel to enforce safety rules and regulations. The failure to provide adequate and proper training in the operation of dangerous machinery in this instance must therefore be attributable solely to the supervisory personnel at the facility.
The Court therefore finds that this claimant was placed in a very vulnerable position due not only to the failure of the State to provide him with reasonably safe equipment, but also due to the failure of management to adequately train him in the proper and safe operation of the press. As a result of this utter and complete failure to properly train claimant, as well as to adequately supervise claimant while operating the press, claimant is not to be blamed for any actions taken by him in attempting to clear the jam from the machine. From the credible evidence, the Court finds that claimant was simply following procedures he had been taught, and that were commonly performed in the blanking shop, as he attempted to clean out the machine.
Accordingly, based upon the foregoing, it is the Court’s finding that the proximate cause of this accident resulted from a combination of the failure of the State to provide a proper guard and safety device to the machine, which would, by all accounts, have prevented the accident, the failure of personnel to provide adequate and proper training in the operation of the machine, and the lack of supervision over claimant while he was operating, and cleaning out, the press. Therefore, it is the determination of this Court that the State must be held fully liable for the injuries suffered by claimant in this accident.
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.
LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY

December 28, 2006
Syracuse, New York

HON. NICHOLAS V. MIDEY JR.
Judge of the Court of Claims




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