New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

DAVIS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2007-010-044, Claim No. 109333


Inmate fall on stairs, no proof of defendant’s negligence

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):

Terry Jane Ruderman
Claimant’s attorney:
Defendant’s attorney:
Attorney General for the State of New YorkBy: Wanda Perez-Maldonado, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
September 26, 2007
White Plains

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Claimant seeks damages for injuries he sustained on February 27, 2004 during his incarceration at Sing Sing Correctional Facility (Sing Sing) when he slipped and fell down the stairs while carrying two bags of his belongings. The trial of this claim was bifurcated and this Decision pertains solely to the issue of liability.

At a Tier III disciplinary hearing held on February 25, 2004, claimant was found guilty of possession of marijuana. As a result, he was sent to the facility’s Special Housing Unit (SHU) for six months. Upon entry to SHU, an inmate’s personal property is removed from his cell and stored. Pursuant to Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) Directive 4933, within 72 hours of admission to SHU, an inmate is permitted to retrieve some of his personal items. Following what was referred to as the “72-hour rule,” on February 27, 2004, Correction Officer Richardson went to claimant’s cell to escort him to an area where he could review his personal property (T:65).[1] Claimant’s cell was on the first floor of SHU’s two story housing block. The inmate property was stored on the second floor.

Claimant testified that he was handcuffed by Correction Officer Richardson and led up one flight of stairs to the area where the property was located. Another correction officer, Chambers, was already with the property when Richardson and claimant arrived. Claimant testified that his handcuffs were removed and he placed his belongings into two clear plastic bags as the two officers monitored and inventoried claimant’s items (T:19-21, 42-43). The items packed comprised claimant’s legal papers, transcripts, and books, along with his toiletries, magazines, letters, shorts, underwear and tee shirts. Claimant testified that his legal materials were all related to his active cases.

According to claimant, he tied a knot on the top of each bag and then he was handcuffed (T:20-21). Claimant testified that, with his hands cuffed, he grabbed the two bags and walked backwards dragging the bags to the top of the staircase (T:22, 54-55). He estimated that the bag containing his legal documents weighed 60 pounds and the other bag weighed 30 pounds (id.). Claimant explained that he dragged the bags because they were heavy and difficult to carry while handcuffed (T:55). Claimant, however, did not request to carry one bag at a time (T:56). According to claimant, when he reached the top of the stairs, Richardson told claimant to carry the bags down the stairs. Considering Richardson’s words a direct order, claimant picked up the two bags and started the descent. As he proceeded, he lost his balance and fell down the stairs (T:25-26). Claimant testified that Richardson was not accompanied by a sergeant (T:53). Claimant, who was six foot, three inches tall and weighed 230 pounds, never complained that the bags were too heavy nor did he ask Richardson if they could take another route (T:27). Claimant testified that he was aware that he was responsible for carrying his bags (T:53). He did not at any time tell a correction officer that the bags were too heavy for him to carry (id.).

Sergeant Joseph Tilson has been employed by DOCS for 20 years and has been a sergeant since 2003. He testified that, except for very limited exceptions not present in this case, all SHU inmates leaving their cells must be handcuffed at all times and they are to remain handcuffed during the entire procedure of reclaiming their property pursuant to the 72-hour rule (T:66-69). Tilson specifically recalled accompanying Richardson as he escorted claimant to retrieve his property. Tilson testified that he temporarily left the area while Officers Chambers and Richardson packed claimant’s belongings. When Tilson returned, he noticed the large amount of legal material and questioned claimant whether the items all referred to active cases. Tilson testified that he observed claimant, “[h]is hands were cuffed, he picked up the bags and lifted them straight up” (T:73). Claimant carried the bags without difficulty and did not drag them on the floor (id.). Claimant did not make any comment regarding the weight of the bags nor did he ask for any assistance with the bags (T:74). Tilson did not observe claimant have any difficulty with the bags (T:83-85).

Tilson explained that, absent medical conditions or other physical limitations, the SHU inmate always carries his own property to his cell (T:74). In this case, there was no reason why claimant could not carry his own property, but if there had been a limitation, then another inmate would be directed to carry claimant’s property or ultimately an officer would transport the property (id.). Claimant did not appear to be having any problem carrying the bags. When they reached the staircase, Tilson asked claimant if he wanted to make two trips because he had two bags (T:86-87). Claimant did not respond and proceeded down the stairs. Tilson saw claimant fall and later prepared a memorandum regarding the accident (Ex. 4). The report stated: “[a]s Davis was approximately half way down the stairs leading to one gallery, his foot became what appeared to be tangled in his property bag and he fell forward down the stairs” (id.). Claimant was then taken to the emergency room for evaluation.

Correction Officer Napoleon Richardson testified that he has been employed by DOCS for nine years and has been at Sing Sing almost the entire time. On February 27, 2004, he was assigned as the SHU escort officer and went with Tilson to claimant’s cell. Claimant was handcuffed and taken upstairs to the property area where Chambers was stationed. Claimant remained handcuffed at all times. Claimant’s property was placed on a table and he was allowed to select the permissible items for use in SHU. The selected items were then placed into two plastic bags. Claimant picked up the filled bags and carried them without any difficulty and without any comment about their weight (T:110-11). Richardson did not observe claimant dragging the bags on the floor at any time (T:111). Nor did he observe claimant have any difficulty balancing himself as he carried the bags (T:124).

Richardson did not direct claimant down the stairs or have any conversation with him. Richardson testified that claimant did not respond to Tilson when asked about making two trips with the bags and that claimant stated that all of his legal material related to active cases (T:123-24).

It is well established that “[t]he State just as any other party *** is responsible, in the operation and management of its schools, hospitals and other institutions, only for hazards reasonably to be foreseen, only for risks reasonably to be perceived” (Flaherty v State of New York, 296 NY 342, 346) and with respect to the safety of persons on its property, the duty of the State if one of reasonable care under the circumstances (see Miller v State of New York, 62 NY2d 506, 513; Preston v State of New York, 59 NY2d 997, 998; Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233, 241). The State, however, is not an insurer of the safety of its premises and negligence cannot be inferred solely from the happening of an accident (see Killeen v State of New York, 66 NY2d 850, 851; Condon v State of New York, 193 AD2d 874).

Upon listening to the witnesses testify and observing their demeanor as they did so, the Court finds that the credible evidence established that claimant was aware that it was his responsibility to carry his own bags and he was aware of this as he packed the bags and necessarily determined their weight. Claimant never made any remarks regarding the weight of the bags nor did he complain of any difficulty in handling the bags. Indeed, the Court finds that the credible evidence established that claimant lifted the bags straight up and carried them without difficulty and disregarded the option to carry one bag at a time down the stairs. Where an inmate fails to use ordinary care and pursues a dangerous course of conduct, the inmate is required to take some responsibility for his own negligence (see Carter v State of New York, 194 AD2d 967; Hicks v State of New York, 124 AD2d 949). Accordingly, the Court finds that claimant failed to meet his burden of proof as he did not establish that defendant was negligent and that such negligence was a proximate cause of claimant’s accident. Rather, the Court finds that claimant’s fall was due to his own negligence in trying to carry both bags at once down the stairs rather than make two trips and to carry one bag at a time. Defendant’s motion to dismiss, upon which decision was reserved, is now GRANTED.


September 26, 2007
White Plains, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1]. References to the trial transcript are preceded by the letter “T.”