In this claim, claimant seeks damages for personal injuries suffered by him in
an incident which occurred on December 2, 2002, at Cayuga Correctional Facility,
where claimant was then incarcerated. On that date, claimant was working in the
mess hall when he suffered burns to his lower left extremities while attempting
to pour coffee from a 10-gallon container into a 5-gallon container.
The trial of this claim was bifurcated, and this decision therefore addresses
solely the issue of liability. At the trial, claimant and three employees of
the State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) testified.
Claimant testified that he was assigned to the mess hall at Cayuga Correctional
Facility, where he worked as a butcher. He testified that one of his duties was
to fill 5-gallon urns with coffee from a 10-gallon urn. He did not brew the
coffee or fill the 10-gallon urn, which was extremely heavy when
He testified that he had performed this
task of transferring the coffee every day for approximately one to two weeks
prior to the incident which forms the basis of this claim.
Claimant testified that this task was “pretty
and that he had to
place the 5-gallon urn under the 10-gallon urn, which was already sitting on a
counter in the mess hall. The 5-gallon urns of coffee were intended for other
workers at the facility who worked outside during the cold weather. Claimant
acknowledged that this task “was not really that difficult”, and
that he only had to rotate the 10-gallon urn 180 degrees so that its spigot
extended over the side of the counter. The spigot from the 10-gallon urn could
then be opened, allowing the coffee to run into the smaller, 5-gallon urn.
On the day of the incident, however, as he rotated the 10-gallon urn, claimant
apparently extended the urn too far over the edge of the counter, and the urn
began to tip and fall. As it tipped, the top then came off from the 10-gallon
urn and coffee began to spill out from the top. Claimant immediately dropped
the urn, turned, and attempted to run away, but he slipped and fell, suffering
burns to the back of his left buttock and lower left leg where he was struck by
the spilled coffee. Immediately after this incident, claimant testified that he
examined the top to the 10-gallon urn, and noticed that three of the four
latches on the top were broken.
Under cross-examination, claimant testified that he did not examine the
10-gallon urn prior to the accident, but that it was commonly known among the
workers that, prior to the accident, most of the latches on the 10-gallon urns
were broken and did not function properly. He acknowledged that he had never
submitted a formal or written complaint regarding the condition of the latches
or urns prior to the accident.
Christopher Gorman was a correction officer whose duties included the
supervision of inmates who were working in the mess hall. Correction Officer
Gorman was on duty on December 2, 2002, and witnessed this incident. Although
Correction Officer Gorman’s recollection differed in some respects from
that of claimant, he did confirm the essential fact that as claimant was moving
the 10-gallon urn, the top came off from the urn and hot coffee spilled out,
burning claimant. Correction Officer Gorman added that the top of the urn was
not latched, but, contrary to claimant’s testimony, he stated that this
urn had six latches, “most” of which were broken at the time of the
Christopher Van Orman was employed as a civilian cook at Cayuga Correctional
Facility at the time of this incident. Mr. Van Orman was responsible for
overseeing the preparation of meals and maintaining the kitchen, and his duties
included the supervision of inmates, including claimant, who worked in the mess
Mr. Van Orman testified that claimant did not receive any specific training for
the task of filling the 5-gallon urns from the 10-gallon urn, and that he
himself had provided no specific training to claimant on proper filling
Mr. Van Orman was working on December 2, 2002, the date of the incident.
Although he did not personally witness the accident, he examined the 10-gallon
urn shortly after the incident, and testified that the top of the urn had four
latches, of which only two were operable.
Mr. Van Orman further testified that latches to the 10-gallon coffee urns used
in the mess hall at the time of this accident, and prior thereto, would often
become worn and twisted over time. He testified that if he noticed that a latch
was not operating properly, he would either report it to a correction officer,
prepare a work order, or report the problem directly to a maintenance employee.
He also testified that inmates would occasionally report defects in these
latches to him, but he did not recall ever receiving any complaint from claimant
regarding these latches.
Mr. Van Orman also testified that prior to this accident, new 10-gallon urns
had been purchased in the summer of 2001, and that they were put into service
due to a water shortage at the facility at that time. These new urns were a
different color than the urns which were in use at the time of claimant’s
accident, and these urns had six latches on the top, rather than the four
latches which he observed on the type of urn which was involved in this
David R. Welch, a Food Service Administrator at Cayuga Correctional Facility,
was the senior civilian employee at the mess hall, and was in charge of running
the mess hall, at the time of this accident. He acknowledged that complaints of
broken latches on the 10-gallon urns had been received prior to the incident of
December 2, 2002. However, he was unable to produce any work orders relating to
latch repairs of these urns, since work orders are only maintained by the
facility for a period of three years. As a result, any work orders for repairs
which were required prior to the incident of December 2, 2002 were not
No other witnesses testified at this trial.
It is well-settled that the State has a duty to exercise reasonable care in
providing for the safety of inmates participating in work programs, and to
provide them with a reasonably safe place to work (Palmisano v State of New
York, 47 AD2d 692; Callahan v State of New York, 19 AD2d 437,
affd 14 NY2d 665). As part of this duty, the State must provide its
inmates in work programs with reasonably safe equipment as well as providing
these inmates with sufficient warnings and instructions for the safe operation
of such equipment (Maldonado v State of New York, 255 AD2d 630). The
State, however, is not an insurer of inmate safety (Muhammad v State of New
York, 15 AD3d 807), and inmates who have been injured in correctional
facilities are not entitled to the full range of protection afforded by the
Labor Law of the State of New York (Kandrach v State of New York, 188
AD2d 910). However, 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 particular matter, it is undisputed that claimant was properly
performing his duties in transferring coffee from the 10-gallon urn to the
5-gallon urn at the time that this incident occurred. Furthermore, based upon
the testimony provided, the Court finds that at least two of the four latches on
the top of the 10-gallon urn were broken or defective at the time of this
incident. Testimony from both claimant and Correction Officer Gorman
established that the top of the urn came off as it started to tip, and that
coffee began to spill out from the uncovered top of the urn as it fell, prior to
the urn striking the floor. The Court therefore finds that the defective
latches allowed the hot coffee to spill from the top, and therefore this defect
was a proximate cause of the accident and resulting burns suffered by claimant.
The Court also finds that the State did not have any formal procedures in place
for the inspection of this equipment. The State apparently relied upon
complaints from either employees or inmates before these urns were inspected,
repaired, or taken out of service. Despite this lack of a formal inspection
process, based upon acknowledged complaints made prior to this incident, the
Court finds that the State, at a minimum, had constructive notice of a problem
with the metal latches on the 10-gallon coffee urns which were in use at the
time of the incident. Additionally, testimony also established that new
10-gallon urns had already been purchased by the State, and were easily
available so that they could easily have been placed into service prior to the
In sum, the Court finds that the State had notice of the defective condition
pertaining to the latches on the 10-gallon urns prior to the accident, that the
defective latches constituted a dangerous condition, especially when coupled in
use with extremely hot coffee, and that the defective latches were a proximate
cause of claimant’s accident. The State must therefore be held liable for
the injuries sustained by claimant in this accident.
As a result, the Court must also consider whether any comparative fault should
be attributed to claimant, since an inmate who fails to use ordinary care must
bear some responsibility for his own negligence (Carter v State of New
York, 194 AD2d 967; Hicks v State of New York, 124 AD2d 949). In
this case, claimant was performing the relatively simple task of transferring
coffee from a 10-gallon urn to a 5-gallon urn, and all that was required was
rotating the 10-gallon urn so that the spigot of that urn would extend over the
edge of a counter. It is important to note that claimant was not required to
lift the 10-gallon container or even tip that container in order to carry out
his duties. Claimant, however, admittedly overextended the 10-gallon urn so far
past the edge of the counter that it began to tip and eventually fell on him.
The Court therefore finds that claimant, who had performed this task on a daily
basis for approximately one to two weeks before the incident, disregarded an
obvious and foreseeable danger in performing his duties, and his careless
actions played a direct and significant role in causing his injuries.
Based on the foregoing, the Court therefore finds that the defendant State of
New York is 50% responsible for the injuries suffered by claimant in this
accident, and that claimant is 50% responsible for his injuries.
The Clerk of the Court is hereby directed to enter an interlocutory judgment on
the issue of liability in accordance with this decision. This claim will be
scheduled for trial on the issue of damages as soon as practicable.
LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.