New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

MOLINA v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2006-033-563, Claim No. 107348


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):

James J. Lack
Claimant’s attorney:
Tartamella, Tartamella & Fresolone, Esqs.By: Charles V. Borsetti, Esq.
Defendant’s attorney:
Eliot Spitzer, New York State Attorney GeneralBy: John M. Shields, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
September 29, 2006

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)

This is a timely filed claim for damages by Laura Molina (hereinafter “claimant”) based upon the alleged negligence of the defendant. The bifurcated trial of this claim was held on January 11, 2006, on the issue of liability.
The facts of the case are simple. On November 28, 2001, claimant went to Stony Brook University Hospital to visit her sister who was a patient at the hospital. Claimant entered her sister’s room with a cup of coffee.
She placed the cup onto the rolling tray table in the room. Claimant and her sister, Kathleen Connelly both testified that neither of them touched the table at any time after claimant entered the room. Claimant sat in a chair near the bed and the rolling tray table. While claimant was seated, a wheel came off the table causing the coffee to spill into claimant’s lap.
Debra Grimm, defendant’s employee entered the room after the incident. Grimm testified that she saw the table tilted and found the wheel approximately twelve inches away from the table. At trial, Grimm could not remember what she did with the table. During cross-examination, Grimm was questioned as to prior testimony she gave at a deposition. At her deposition, Grimm was asked what happened to the table. She testified that she had the table sent to Distribution Services for replacement
(trial transcript p. 82). Claimant’s counsel followed this question with a question which asked the witness if she sent it to Distribution Services for repair and replacement (trial transcript p. 83). The witness answered the question in the affirmative without objection from defendant, even though the question mischaracterized the deposition testimony. The deposition was placed into evidence (Exhibit 2). According to the deposition testimony of Grimm, she was not aware of anyone at the hospital that performed maintenance on the rolling tray tables.
In the ownership of property, the State of New York serves two functions. The first role casts the State in a proprietary function and the other role is that of a governmental function (Miller v State of New York, 62 NY2d 506). The functions are not mutually exclusive. Instead, the functions are opposite ends of a continuum (see Miller).
A governmental entity's conduct may fall along a continuum of responsibility to individuals and society deriving from its governmental and proprietary functions. This begins with the simplest matters directly concerning a piece of property for which the entity acting as landlord has a certain duty of care, for example, the repair of steps or the maintenance of doors in an apartment building. The spectrum extends gradually out to more complex measures of safety and security for a greater area and populace, whereupon the actions increasingly, and at a certain point only, involve governmental functions, for example, the maintenance of general police and fire protection. Consequently, any issue relating to the safety or security of an individual claimant must be carefully scrutinized to determine the point along the continuum that the State's alleged negligent action falls into, either a proprietary or governmental category. Miller at 511 - 512.

In regard to its proprietary function, "the State ‘ “must act as a reasonable man in maintaining his 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’’ ’ (Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233, 241, quoting Smith v Arbaugh’s Rest., 469 F2d 97, 100)" (Preston v State of New York, 59 NY2d 997, 998). "When the liability of a governmental entity is at issue, ‘[it] is the specific act or omission out of which the injury is claimed to have arisen and the capacity in which that act or failure to act occurred which governs liability, not whether the agency involved is engaged generally in proprietary activity or is in control of the location in which the injury occurred’ (Weiner v Metropolitan Transp. Auth., 55 NY2d 175, 182)" (Miller supra at 513). The State’s proprietary function subjects it to the same rules of liability as apply to a private citizen.
On the other end of the continuum, is the State’s governmental function. The State "remains immune from negligence claims arising out of governmental functions such as police protection unless a special relationship with a person creates a specific duty to protect, and that person relies on performance of that duty" (Price v New York City Hous. Auth., 92 NY2d 553, 557 - 558). In the case at bar, defendant’s function falls into the proprietary category.
It is incumbent upon claimant to establish: the existence of a foreseeable dangerous condition; that the State created the condition or had either actual or constructive notice of the condition; that the State failed to remedy the condition within a reasonable time; that such condition was a proximate cause of claimant’s accident; and that damages were sustained (Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836). Claimant relies on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.
When the theory of res ipsa loquitur is invoked, negligence may be inferred just from the happening of an accident. This is based on the theory that certain events contain within themselves sufficient basis for the inference of negligence (Dermatossian v New York City Tr. Auth., 67 NY2d 219). Res ipsa loquitur does not create a presumption in favor of the claimant, but generally allows, but does not require, the inference of negligence to be drawn (ibid.).
In New York it is the general rule that submission of the case on the theory of res ipsa loquitur is warranted only when the plaintiff can establish the following elements: " '(1) the event must be of a kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone's negligence; (2) it must be caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant; (3) it must not have been due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff' "(Corcoran v Banner Super Market, 19 NY2d 425, 430, mod on remittitur 21 NY2d 793 [quoting from Prosser, Torts § 39, at 218 (3d ed)]). Only when these essential elements have been established, after the plaintiff has first demonstrated the nature of the instrumentality which caused the injury and its connection with the defendant (see, Manley v New York Tel. Co., 303 NY 18), does a prima facie case of negligence exist (see, Weeden v Armor Elevator Co., 97 AD2d 197, 203; Fogal v Genesee Hosp., 41 AD2d 468, 476).
Dermatossian at 226.
The exclusive control requirement, as generally understood, is that the evidence "must afford a rational basis for concluding that the cause of the accident was probably 'such that the defendant would be responsible for any negligence connected with it.' " (2 Harper and James, Torts § 19.7, at 1086, quoting Prosser, Res Ipsa Loquitur in California, 37 Cal L Rev 183, 201 [1949].) The purpose is simply to eliminate within reason all explanations for the injury other than the defendant's negligence (see, Prosser and Keeton, Torts § 39, at 248-251 [5th ed]; see, e.g., Zentz v Coca Cola Bottling Co., 39 Cal 2d 436, 247 P2d 344, supra).
Dermatossian at 227.
In the case at bar, the Court can find the first and third elements of res ipsa loquitur. It is the second element, the table being within the exclusive control of the defendant, where the case fails. Claimant has presented no evidence as to the length of time the table was in the room. The wheel could have fallen off as the result of a manufacturer’s defect. Claimant presented no evidence that defendant performed any maintenance on these tables. Also, according to claimant’s testimony, her sister had been admitted the day before. It is certain that many people (e.g. other patients, visitors, chaplains) would have access to this room. The Court cannot rule out that the defect was caused by some agency other than defendant’s negligence.
Accordingly, the Court finds in favor of defendant and dismisses the claim. The Clerk of the Court is directed to close the file. All motions not specifically ruled upon are denied.
Let judgment be entered accordingly.

September 29, 2006
Hauppauge, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1].There was testimony that claimant got the cup of coffee because a hospital employee told her to get it. There was other testimony that claimant refilled her cup in a lounge on her sister’s floor, which according to the State’s employee is kept locked. All of this testimony was irrelevant to the incident in the room. Where and why claimant got the coffee is unimportant.
[2].This is different from claimant’s argument that she sent it for replacement or maintenance.