New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

GOMEZ v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2007-029-022, Claim No. 110287


Synopsis


State not liable for injury sustained by inmate when beds fell on him in prison workshop. Claimant failed to establish the cause of the injury or that it was the result of State negligence.

Case Information

UID:
2007-029-022
Claimant(s):
NELSON GOMEZ
Claimant short name:
GOMEZ
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
110287
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
STEPHEN J. MIGNANO
Claimant’s attorney:
GARY E. DIVIS. ESQ.
Defendant’s attorney:
ANDREW M. CUOMO, ATTORNEY GENERALBy: Barry Kaufman, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
June 21, 2007
City:
White Plains
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision

Claimant, an inmate in the State correctional system, seeks damages for injuries allegedly incurred on October 27, 2004 at Fishkill Correctional Facility while he was working in the facility’s Industry I shop, part of the Corcraft operation that manufactures products, including beds, for use in State facilities. He contends that “three heavy bed frames became dislodged from their storage place” – a “stack of stored bed frames” – and struck him in his back and right shoulder and attributes this event to defendant’s failure to provide him with a reasonably safe place to work. [1]

Claimant testified that he started work in Industry I at 8:30 that morning and that the alleged incident occurred about 11:00 a.m. He stated he was working in the grinding area of the shop, transporting unpainted beds to the painting area and that he made three trips between the two areas that day, bringing two beds on each trip. It was on the third trip that he was allegedly injured.

Industry I, as depicted on many of the trial exhibits, consisted of a large room where different activities took place in different areas. The paint shop contained an alcove along one wall that looks somewhat like a large fireplace, in which the beds were painted, and an area in front with two large vertical posts, running from floor to ceiling, and a metal beam running between the two posts. [2] According to claimant, and the other witnesses, after the beds were painted in the alcove, they were placed leaning against the beam so that the paint could dry. The beds consisted of a flat metal surface with two-inch edges that were folded down at 90 degree angles. Brackets were inserted at each end of the bed between the edges, each containing two legs, each leg 6 7/8 inches in length. [3] The painted beds would be stacked vertically, with the lower two legs on the floor, the upper two legs of the first one resting against the beam and successive beds being stacked in turn against the one in front. Claimant stated there could be as many as four rows of beds along the beam with as many as 15 to 20 beds in each stack, depending on how busy the shop was. He claimed that the more beds that were added to a given stack, the less acute the angle between the bed and the floor would become, approaching 90 degrees (which would mean the beds were standing straight up). On cross-examination, he stated that on the date in question there were four rows of beds stacked on each side of the beam, with 15 to 20 beds in each row. He also claimed there was a lot of wet paint on the floor, making it slippery.

Claimant alleged that he brought the beds, two at a time, to the paint shop area, placing the beds on a skid and using a pallet jack to transport the skid to the paint shop. On the first two trips, he maneuvered the pallet jack in front of a table that was near the beam, waited while another inmate placed the beds on the table and returned to the grinding area. During this second trip, there were inmates engaged in painting beds. On his third trip to the paint shop area, three of the stacked beds allegedly fell and struck him on his back and shoulder. He stated he did not make contact with the beds or do anything to cause them to fall and there were no other inmates, or correction officers, in the room at the time. He had no idea what caused the beds to fall. He then sought out Correction Officer DeCarlo and told him that he was injured when the beds fell on his back.

Officer DeCarlo, who testified he was in charge of security in the Industry I building on the date in question, confirmed that claimant told him at about 11 a.m. that he had been injured and showed him a mark behind his shoulder blade. At that time, claimant told him he did not need medical attention, and claimant was not given a pass to go to the infirmary for another 2 ½ hours. DeCarlo completed the top half of a Report of Inmate Injury form, [4] writing that claimant “hit back of right shoulder on bed leg while stacking beds.” DeCarlo testified that statement was based on what claimant told him. The examining nurse wrote that claimant’s right arm appeared “swollen and bruised.” [5] He stated his post was at the front gate of the Industry I building, about 40 yards from the wet paint area, and he thought he would have heard a noise if three beds fell. He denied hearing any noise that day.

Terry Caffrey, a DOCS/Corcraft employee, was Acting Superintendent of Industry I on the date in question. Neither her immediate supervisor, Paul Havranek, nor Tim Allen, another Corcraft employee who also had responsibility for the paint shop, were present in Industry I that day. Asked what standards were applicable to the stacking of beds, she stated that the beds were supposed to be stacked at an angle on one side of the beam, with no more than100 beds in four rows of no more than 25 per row. Only one side of the beam was used for stacking beds.

Ms. Caffrey testified that she arrived at work at about 6:10 a.m. on the date in question and remained in Industry I through the time of the alleged incident. She denied that any painting or stacking of beds was being carried out that day and stated there was nothing going on in the paint shop that day at all, although she was not sure if there were any beds stacked against the rail from previous days. She alleged the inmates assigned to Industry I were just sitting around because there was no work to do and she did not like to send them back to their cells on such occasions because they would not be paid.

Ms. Caffrey explained that beds are assembled in Industry III and IV and then brought to Industry I by truck, where they are unloaded, washed with mineral spirits, painted, stacked, dried and sent out. She referred to a computer printout [6] that she stated reflected all beds delivered to Industry I for the period October 21, 2004 through October 30, 2004. This document shows that 37 beds were delivered to Industry I on October 21 and that there were no further deliveries through October 30. Ms. Caffrey indicated that the process of cleaning, painting, drying and shipping out the beds took 48 hours, at the most, and that the beds delivered on October 21 would not have remained in Industry I until October 27. She had worked in Industry I for 17 months, as of October 2004, and estimated that they had processed over 1,000 beds during that period. She was unaware of any incidents of beds falling from the stacks or any inmate ever being injured by a falling bed.

Paul Havranek, who was not present in Industry I on the date in question, confirmed that Ms. Caffrey was in charge of the shop that day and that Tim Allen, who was normally responsible for the day-to-day operation of the shop, was also not present that day. He testified that the bed stacking procedure was in effect prior to his tenure at Fishkill, that he never saw any beds fall from a stack and that the beds would always be inclined at an angle so it would not be possible for them to fall over backwards. He also stated, as did other witnesses, including the claimant, that the beds would “almost interlock” [7] into each other via the legs.

Tim Allen testified that he was normally in charge of the paint shop, but was absent during the last week of October 2004 because he had been transferred to Industry III and IV for a temporary project. He described the usual routine at Industry I as follows: The beds are manufactured in Industry III and IV and transferred by truck to Industry I for painting. The headboards and footboards are not yet installed on the beds. They are wiped with mineral spirits and then sent to the left side of the paint shop. After waiting 30 minutes to one hour, the beds are painted and then stacked on the right side of the rail to dry. One inmate paints the bed, another inmate flips it over, the other side is painted, another inmate stacks them against the rail for drying and another inmate touches up the paint. The following day, they are packed and sent out.

Allen stated that it takes only a day or so to train the inmates because the process is not complicated. He noted that claimant had worked at the paint shop on two separate occasions: in 1998 and again starting in May 2004, and referred to his training records in both 1998 and 2004.[8] He advised that the painting process does not result in wet paint on the floor because the paint is too thick to run off the stacked beds and pool on the floor. The only time he ever saw paint on the floor, other than tacky footprints from inmates’ shoes, was on the rare occasion when a can of paint was spilled.

According to Allen, as more beds are added to a stack, the angle between the beds in the back of the stack and the floor became more acute, not less, when compared with the bed at the front of the stack. He stated that the angle of the back bed in a stack was either the same as or more acute (i.e., farther from vertical) than the angle of the bed in front of the stack. He never saw a stacked bed fall over backwards, as claimant alleged happened in this case. He also stated that the maximum number of beds in a stack was 10 to12 and that if there were 15 to 20 beds in a stack, they would take up all of the room used for packing the beds.

The final two witnesses were engineers called as experts: Daniel Burdett for claimant and William Kono for defendant. Burdett identified various alleged deficiencies in the paint shop procedures, including the floor being too slippery, the table being too close to the stacked beds, the number of stacked beds being excessive, the inadequacy of the instruction given to inmates on how to stack beds, the lack of signs in the paint shop to remind inmates of the danger of falling beds and the failure to restrain the beds while they were stacked. He opined that, as the paint dried on the beds, their centers of gravity could shift causing them to become unstable, swing like a pendulum, and fall over backwards.

The problems with Burdett’s testimony were numerous, but may be summarized by noting that there was no factual basis for any of his conclusions. For example, there was no credible proof that the floor was wet and slippery or that the instructions given to inmates working in the shop were inadequate. Moreover, his explanation of how beds that were leaning at an angle in one direction could spontaneously shift and fall over backwards was, at best, speculative. As defendant’s expert noted, if too many beds were stacked, it could only result in the angle to the floor becoming more acute (since the beds leaned on each other at the top), and increase the risk, if any, of the tops of the beds in the rear of the stack sliding down the face of the bed immediately in front. The court did not need Kono’s testimony to appreciate this evident application of the law of gravity. There was no plausible explanation of how beds that were leaning forward could, without being struck by something, fall over backward.

The more fundamental problem with claimant’s contention that his injury was the result of negligence on the part of defendant was his failure to establish the cause of that injury. It is hornbook law that claimant has the burden of proving his case by a preponderance of the credible evidence, a burden that is not met if he does not prove that it is more likely that the injury was caused by defendant’s negligence as opposed to other, equally plausible, causes (Rinaldi & Sons v Wells Fargo Alarm Serv., 39 NY2d 191, [1976]). Where there are several possible causes of an accident, claimant may not recover absent proof that the accident occurred in a manner implicating fault on the part of defendant (Stuart-Bullock v State of New York, 38 AD2d 626, 627 [3d Dept 1971], affd 33 NY2d 418 [1974]). If, after evaluating all the proof, it is equally possible that the injury was the result of one cause or another, claimant has not met his burden (Pontello v County of Onandaga, 94 AD2d 427, 430 [4th Dept 1983]).

Leaving aside the fact that claimant’s engineering testimony was unpersuasive, he simply did not establish that the accident occurred in the manner he described. There was no credible proof that the floor was wet and slippery. There was no credible proof that there was an excessive number of beds stacked, given the testimony that there were no beds being painted that day and a generally light work load in Industry I in the latter part of October, 2004. Nobody else was in the shop at the time of the alleged incident. Nobody working in Industry I heard anything when these three 90-pound steel beds allegedly fell to the floor. Viewing the evidence as a whole, there was no credible proof that claimant’s injury was the result of being struck by stacked beds falling over backwards, as opposed to any of the various other ways that he could have sustained a bruise to his shoulder.

For the foregoing reasons, the court finds that claimant has failed to establish that he was injured due to negligence on the part of the State of New York, and the Clerk of the Court is directed to enter a judgment of dismissal.


June 21, 2007
White Plains, New York

HON. STEPHEN J. MIGNANO
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1].Claim, § 3.
[2].Exhibit 26.
[3].Exhibit D, p 3.
[4].Exhibit 3.
[5].Id.
[6].Exhibit G
[7].Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from the court’s trial notes.
[8].Exhibit A.