New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
ROSA v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2007-040-022, Claim No. 108740

Synopsis

Prisoner - Injured using table saw. Failed to establish by preponderance of credible evidence that Claimant was improperly supervised or trained.

Case information

UID: 2007-040-022
Claimant(s): ALEJANDRO ROSA
Claimant short name: ROSA
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 108740
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: CHRISTOPHER J. McCARTHY
Claimant's attorney: ANDREW F. PLASSE, P.C.
By: Andrew F. Plasse, Esq.
Defendant's attorney: ANDREW M. CUOMO
Attorney General of the State of New York
By: Kevan J. Acton, Esq., AAG
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: May 7, 2007
City: Albany
Comments:
Official citation: 881 NYS2d 527
Appellate results: affd 63 AD3d 1383
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

Claimant, Alejandro Rosa, failed to establish by a preponderance of the credible evidence that the State of New York was negligent in connection with an injury to his left index finger. The wound was sustained on July 23, 2003 in an accident involving an electric table saw located in the carpentry shop of the annex to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora (Clinton Annex). A bifurcated trial of the Claim, addressing only the issue of liability, was held on February 13, 2007 at the Court of Claims in Albany. There were two witnesses: the Claimant and Robert F. Bombard, the civilian carpenter who supervised the carpentry shop. Their testimony is in accord on many points.

Claimant received extensive carpentry training in several vocational training programs offered through the Department Correctional Services (DOCS), including programs in carpentry and woodworking. In December 1991, he received instruction in general woodworking skills, including training to: cut wood to length on a table saw; rip wood to width on a table saw; and cut taper using a table saw (see Ex. G). DOCS Division of Occupational Training certified Mr. Rosa's proficiency as a table saw operator (among other job titles) in March 1992 (see Ex. B).

Mr. Bombard testified that he has been a carpenter for 40 years, including several years as apprentice to a master carpenter. On cross-examination, he stated that he has been supervisor of the carpentry shop since 1996. He said that he provided Mr. Rosa with additional instruction when Mr. Rosa began working in the carpentry shop. Mr. Bombard further stated that he gave Claimant a practical test in which he observed Mr. Rosa perform a number of tasks before Mr. Bombard signed a training record in April 2003 indicating that Claimant was trained to use certain equipment, including the table saw. Claimant countersigned the training record, acknowledging that he "was instructed in the safe and proper use" of the tools and equipment itemized on the record (see Ex. E).

Mr. Rosa testified that he has engaged in such work "just about all my life. It's about the only kind of work I do know, carpentry work."(1) On cross-examination, he agreed that he was an "experienced", "proficient" and "skilled" carpenter. On cross-examination, Mr. Bombard concurred, describing Claimant's work as "good, talented" and adding that Mr. Rosa was able to comprehend and follow instructions so that "after a while I didn't even have to watch him anymore." Claimant testified that he has owned one table saw and used at least four or five others. Mr. Rosa also agreed, on cross-examination, that he knew that his hand could be lacerated or even seriously injured if it came into contact with the saw blade. He stated that he was never hurt while using a table saw during the period from 1991 to 2003.

On July 23, 2003, Claimant was participating in a program as a facility carpenter at Clinton Annex. Mr. Rosa testified that he and another inmate were working at the same table saw on which Mr. Rosa received his general woodworking training referenced in Exhibit G. He testified that he had used that particular table saw hundreds of times prior to the date of his accident and had never had a problem using it.

The witnesses agreed in their descriptions of the "powermatic" table saw. It consists of a flat table. The blade of the saw sticks up through the table surface. The height of the blade can be adjusted. Mr. Rosa estimated that about four inches were above the surface of the tabletop on the day of the accident. The table saw is equipped with a guard. The guard apparatus is clearly visible in Exhibit 1 as a silver arm or bar with two silver paddles or rudders. It is designed to pivot so that it can be swung over the top of the table when it is being used. As depicted in Exhibit 1, the guard is not in use and has been swung over the side of the table. Mr. Bombard estimated that the table saw had been in the carpentry shop for perhaps ten or twelve years before he began working in the shop in 1997. He testified on direct examination that the table saw was in the same condition on the date of the accident as it is depicted in Exhibit 1 and stated, on cross-examination, that the photograph was probably taken on the day of the accident.

The witnesses further agreed that Mr. Bombard directed Mr. Rosa and the other inmate to cut some small pieces of wood. Claimant was making a "rip cut" (e.g., cutting the wood length-wise) in order to reduce its width by feeding the pieces of wood into the saw blade. The other inmate was on the other side of the machine to receive or catch the pieces after they had been cut. As noted above, the table saw is equipped with a guard, but Claimant testified that it would have been "impossible" to cut such small pieces of wood with the guard engaged because the guard would have blocked his view of both the saw blade and the wood being cut. Mr. Rosa testified that he was using wooden "push sticks" (examples of which were produced on cross-examination for demonstrative purposes) instead. Each push stick is about ten to twelve inches long. One end is a curved handle. At the other end, the push stick is notched so that it can engage, or catch onto, the wood. Claimant testified, on cross-examination, that he was using two push sticks on the day of the accident on account of the small size of the wood being cut. He used the stick in his right hand to push the wood through the saw without having to place his hand in close proximity to the blade. The push stick in his left hand was used as an added safety precaution and to help keep in place the excess portion of the wood that was being trimmed.

Claimant testified that the accident occurred as follows: "on the second or third piece of wood, [I] started to feed it, got the push sticks, started to pull, and the blade stopped. So, I took my hands away from it and as I went to turn it [the machine] off, she started again and kicked both wood, everything, back. I just jumped and looked at my finger and saw the blood. That's when I turned the machine off, turned to him [the other inmate] and told him, 'I'm bleeding.' "

Mr. Rosa explained, on cross-examination, that he turned the machine on before each cut and then turned it off again until he was ready to make the next cut. He further explained that the on/off button is located right under the table. He stated that the accident occurred after a cut had been completed. He said that the blade stopped spinning even though the power was still on. Claimant testified that he had encountered this phenomenon on other occasions, both on his personal saw and those in carpentry shops. It had happened before on the machine he was using on the date of the injury, though never for such a prolonged period of time and never with the size wood he was cutting on the day of the accident. He testified that such stoppages occurred both before and after cuts were made, sometimes because of accumulated sawdust and debris becoming trapped, on other occasions because of knots in the wood.

Mr. Bombard testified, on cross-examination, that he did not witness the accident. He was seated at his desk, which he estimated to be fifteen feet from the table saw where Mr. Rosa was injured. In his direct testimony, however, he disputed Claimant's account that the blade stopped rotating even though the power was on, stating "I can't see how it could have occurred. That's a five horse [power] motor." Mr. Bombard further testified that, if the blade was bound by a piece of wood (which he doubted it would do), "you would hear it squeal and it would kick the [circuit] breaker off." In any event, Mr. Bombard testified that the circuit breaker did not trip on the date of the accident. He was not aware of any other electrical condition with respect to the blade that would have caused it to stop. Mr. Bombard stated that he had never experienced anything similar to what Claimant described.

Claimant testified further on direct examination that his fingers did not come into contact with the blade during the accident. On cross-examination, he testified that his injured finger looked "more shredded than it did cut." He did not agree that his injury was consistent with one that would be caused by contact with the blade. Claimant did agree that photographs of his injured finger show a laceration across the end of the finger, but not through the nail (see Ex. H).

Mr. Bombard testified that he observed the condition of Claimant's finger after it was injured and that the photographic evidence fairly and accurately depicts the condition of Mr. Rosa's injury (see Exs. H and I). Mr. Bombard testified that it looks like "the skin is gone" from the end of the finger. Mr. Bombard further testified that he himself had been injured on a table saw on another occasion when he slipped and his finger came into contact with the blade. He stated that his finger "was mangled it looked like this [indicating the photographs of Mr. Rosa's injury]." He agreed that, based upon his experience, the exhibits depict a similar injury.

Claimant testified concerning how sawdust is drawn away from the blade. He stated that typically a hose with air suction would be connected to the table saw. Sawdust and particles of wood would be sucked down a chute and be carried away. Mr. Rosa stated that all the table saws he had used had such ventilation systems, or bag attachments to collect sawdust, with the exception of the machine he was using at the time of his accident. Mr. Bombard testified, on cross-examination, that another table saw at the carpentry shop in the main portion of Clinton Correctional Facility had a ventilation system. Claimant noted a circular hole visible at the bottom of the table saw, as depicted in Exhibit 1, as the point where such a vent would be attached to the table saw. Mr. Bombard, on cross-examination, likewise identified the hole as an air duct and said "that's the way it was" when he arrived at the carpentry shop in 1997. Both witnesses noted sawdust is visible in the hole.

Claimant testified that sawdust in the hole was a problem. He said that, unless dust is removed, either by means of a ventilation system or manually, sawdust tends to build up inside the machine. He further stated that, if that happened, either the blade might not start at all when the saw is turned on, or else, any debris that is left around the blade would tend to "kick right up first" when the blade is started. The Court reserved on Defendant's objection to Mr. Rosa offering his opinion, based on his experience using table saws, that the reason the blade stopped in this instance was because sawdust and chunks of wood were trapped inside the machine as a result of improper ventilation. On redirect examination, Mr. Bombard agreed that the sawdust falls down into the interior of the saw but stated it would in no way restrict the rotation of the blade.

To establish a prima facie case of negligence, Claimant must demonstrate by a preponderance of the credible evidence that: (1) Defendant owed Claimant a duty of care; (2) a breach of that duty; and (3) an injury suffered by Claimant which was proximately caused by such breach. In addition, Claimant must show that Defendant's negligence caused his injuries (see Kampff v Ulster Sanitation, 280 AD2d 797; Patrick v State of New York, 11 Misc 3d 296, 320; Rice v State of New York, Claim No. 107632, dated June 19, 2006, Hard, J. [UID No. 2006-032-505]).

With respect to claims by inmates engaged in work programs, Defendant, through DOCS, owes a duty to provide reasonably safe machinery and equipment as well as sufficient warnings and instruction for the safe operation of the work and equipment (Manganaro v State of New York, 24 AD3d 1003, 1004; Muhammad v State of New York, 15 AD3d 807, 808; Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877, 878; Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910, 913). At the same time, the State is not an insurer of the safety of its inmates and negligence cannot be inferred solely from the occurrence of an accident (see Killeen v State of New York, 66 NY2d 850, 851; Condon v State of New York, 193 AD2d 874; Perez v State of New York, 9 Misc 3d 1126[A], 2005 NY Slip Op 51802[U]). Inmates are required to exercise ordinary care (Manganaro v State of New York, supra; Muhammad v State of New York, supra). Moreover, when inmates fail to do so and pursue dangerous courses of conduct, they must take some responsibility for their own negligence (Martinez v State of New York, supra; Carter v State of New York, 194 AD2d 967; Hicks v State of New York, 124 AD2d 949).

The Court has considered all the evidence, including a review of the exhibits and listening to the witnesses testify and observing their demeanor as they did so. While Claimant provided generally credible and articulate testimony, the Court finds that Mr. Rosa has failed to meet his burden and did not establish by a preponderance of the credible evidence that Defendant was negligent by failing to provide reasonably safe machinery and equipment as well as sufficient warnings and instruction for the safe operation of the table saw.

First, the Court concludes that the accident occurred in the manner described by Claimant. Mr. Rosa provided a credible description of the events resulting in his injury. He was the only eyewitness to testify at trial. The Court determines that Defendant's effort to cast doubt on Claimant's account of how the accident occurred is unavailing.

Second, while the Court accepts Claimant's account as to how his accident occurred, it cannot endorse his explanation as to why it happened. Claimant contends that the table saw was rendered dangerous and unsafe to use because it was not attached to a ventilation or exhaust system. Mr. Rosa opined that the wood kicked back and lacerated his finger because the saw was clogged by sawdust and debris. The Court reserved on Defendant's objection and permitted Mr. Rosa to offer his opinion. The Court now overrules the State's objection and accepts Mr. Rosa's testimony, though it attaches little weight to it. Claimant established his competency in the use of the table saw. He failed to demonstrate, however, his qualifications concerning the maintenance and operation of the machinery. In any event, Mr. Rosa did not testify that he had inspected the interior of the table saw, or confirmed in any other manner that his supposition was correct. Moreover, he provided no other expert witness to explain how accumulated sawdust could adversely affect the operation of the machine and cause the blade to jam and wood to kick back in the manner Mr. Rosa described.

Equally problematic is the fact that Claimant testified that he had encountered jammed saw blades on other occasions while using several different table saws. Yet, Mr. Rosa also stated that each of the other machines was equipped with a ventilation or exhaust system. Thus, Claimant's own testimony undermines his contention that the absence of such a system was the cause of his accident in this Claim. Moreover, Mr. Rosa also testified that such blade stoppages occurred both before and after cuts were made, sometimes because of accumulated sawdust and debris becoming trapped, on other occasions because of knots in the wood. Claimant thereby offered at least one other possible explanation for the jam - namely, some knot or other defect in the wood he was cutting. Without more definitive evidence, Claimant's theory as to why the blade stopped and then began to spin again appears to be both speculative and self-serving. On the evidence before it, the Court cannot determine why the blade stopped spinning, or what caused the accident.

Finally, with respect to the State's duty to Claimant, there is ample evidence that the State discharged its obligation to provide Mr. Rosa not only with safe equipment, but also comprehensive instruction and warnings regarding its safe use and operation.

The table saw was equipped with a safety guard. There was no testimony that the guard was broken or otherwise inoperative. Rather, Claimant testified that he elected not to use the guard on account of the small size of the wood he was cutting. Mr. Rosa chose instead to use push sticks to alleviate the potential danger of his hand coming into contact with the saw blade. In fact, he used two push sticks as an added safety measure. The record establishes that Claimant is a capable carpenter. Mr. Rosa testified to his proficiency and that opinion is shared by Mr. Bombard. Thus, the Court concludes that Claimant was well able to discern the risks attendant to his work. Certainly, he was aware that his finger could be injured, perhaps seriously, were it to come into contact with the saw blade. He also knew that, on occasion, wood could jam in the blade and be kicked back. No additional warnings were required to apprise him of the danger that he, with his asserted experience, should have foreseen (see Manganaro v State of New York, supra; Banks v Makita, U.S.A., 226 AD2d 659, 660; Martinez v State of New York, supra at 879).

Claimant offered no proof at trial relating to the second cause of action alleged in his Claim - the alleged violation of his State constitutional rights. Therefore, that cause of action is dismissed for failure of proof.

Defendant's motion to dismiss, made at the conclusion of the trial and upon which the Court reserved decision, is now granted and the Claim is dismissed.

The Chief Clerk is directed to enter judgment accordingly.

May 7, 2007

Albany, New York

CHRISTOPHER J. McCARTHY

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. All quotations are taken from the audiotape recording of the trial.