New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

LAYOU v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2007-009-174, Claim No. 109621


In this negligence claim, the State was found 50% responsible for injuries suffered by claimant when he was burned performing his duties in the kitchen at Cayuga Correctional Facility, based upon its failure to provide claimant with reasonably safe equipment. Claimant was found 50% comparatively negligent.

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: Thomas F. Shannon, Esq.,Of Counsel.
Defendant’s attorney:
Attorney General
BY: Edward F. McArdle, Esq.,
Assistant Attorney GeneralOf Counsel.
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
August 6, 2007

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


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 full.[1] 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 self-explanatory”[2] 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 incident.

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 hall.

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 procedures.

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 accident.

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 available.

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 accident.

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.


August 6, 2007
Syracuse, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1]. The Court took judicial notice of the fact that a gallon of water weighs 8.31 pounds.
[2]. Unless otherwise indicated, all references and quotations are taken from the Court’s trial notes.