New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

PETTIT v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2008-038-121, Claim No. 111731


Claim by UPS delivery person for hand injuries suffered when chair at SUNY Stony Brook collapsed dismissed after trial. Claimant did not demonstrate that defendant had notice of the defective chair, and claimant's effort to invoke doctrine of res ipsa loquitur unsuccessful because claimant did not prove that defendant maintained sufficiently exclusive control over the defective chair.

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:
Defendant’s attorney:
ANDREW M. CUOMO, Attorney General of the State of New York
By: Todd A. Schall, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
November 24, 2008

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Claimants Glenn S. and Kathleen M. Pettit[1] seek to recover damages for injuries claimant sustained on December 30, 2003, when a chair at the State University of New York at Stony Brook (SUNY Stony Brook) collapsed underneath him when he sat upon it. The liability phase of the trial of this claim was conducted on May 20, 2008 in Hauppauge, New York. Claimant presented his testimony; defendant presented the testimony of SUNY Stony Brook employees John Kincaid and Robert Martin. Numerous photographic and documentary exhibits were received into evidence. After listening to the witnesses testify and observing their demeanor as they did so, and upon consideration of that evidence and all of the other evidence received at trial and the applicable law, the Court concludes that defendant is not liable to claimant for his injuries.

At approximately 5:00 p.m. on December 30, 2003, claimant, an employee of United Parcel Service (UPS), arrived at a laboratory room on the first floor of the Light Engineering Building at SUNY Stony Brook in Stony Brook, New York to pick up a package for shipment. There, claimant met an unidentified “Oriental” woman (T:10)[2] – whom he presumed to be a student – who had called UPS to have the package picked up. Claimant then sat on a chair in the laboratory room which “simultaneously” (T:11) collapsed underneath him as he sat upon it, and he sustained injuries to his left hand and fingers. After the incident, claimant noticed that the chair was broken in several pieces, and that the metal legs of the chair were “pushed out” from the base of the seat of the chair. Claimant described the chair as being “[j]ust a regular chair” (T:11) that was similar to other chairs in the laboratory room. Claimant did not notice anything unusual about the chair before he sat down upon it.

Within two months of the accident, claimant returned to the same SUNY Stony Brook laboratory room to take pictures of the collapsed chair. That chair was no longer in the room, but the “Oriental” woman who had been present in the laboratory room when the chair collapsed was there again, and she informed claimant that she had taken pictures of the chair, which she later e-mailed to claimant (see Claimant’s Exhibits 1, 5 and 7). Since the collapsed chair was no longer there, claimant took photographs of other chairs in the laboratory room that were similar in appearance to the collapsed chair (see Claimant’s Exhibits 2, 3, 6, 8, 9 and 11).

An incident report completed by the SUNY Stony Brook Police on December 30, 2003 indicated that claimant had a medical emergency at “Campus Drive (Loop Area)” and that claimant “cut his hand while delivering boxes” (Claimant’s Exhibit 13). No other official SUNY Stony Brook record was introduced at trial to document claimant’s accident. Professor John Kincaid, who was Deputy Chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department in December 2003, likely would have been informed of claimant’s accident, but he had no knowledge of the claimant’s accident until after this claim was filed. Robert Martin, Operations Manager for the College of Engineering at SUNY Stony Brook, whose duties included overseeing the operations and maintenance of the Light Engineering Building, did not receive any complaints about the condition of the chairs in the Light Engineering Building prior to December 30, 2003. Moreover, Martin did not recall learning of the accident or the existence of a damaged chair in the Light Engineering Building until sometime in 2006. Further, both Kincaid and Martin testified that the designated area for the pickup and delivery of UPS packages for the Light Engineering Building was a room in the basement of the old engineering building.
As an initial matter, defendant adduced evidence at trial that sought to impeach claimant’s testimony as to how and where he had injured his hand at Stony Brook that day. However, the Court found claimant’s testimony to be credible and finds that claimant did in fact suffer injuries in the manner described in his trial testimony. Notwithstanding this finding, claimant has failed to prove that defendant is liable for his injuries.

It is axiomatic that liability for a dangerous condition on defendant’s property will lie only in those cases where the defendant either created the dangerous condition or had actual or constructive notice thereof (see Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836, 837 [1986]; Zuppardo v State of New York, 186 AD2d 561, 562 [2d Dept 1992]). “To constitute constructive notice, a defect must be visible and apparent and it must exist for a sufficient length of time prior to the accident to permit a defendant's employees to discover and remedy it” (Gordon, supra).

At the trial of this claim, there was absolutely no proof that defendant created the dangerous condition. Further, the evidence adduced at trial failed to establish that defendant had actual notice of the defective chair. Indeed, Martin credibly testified that he had not heard any complaints about the condition of any of the chairs in the Light Engineering Building prior to claimant’s accident. Thus, the threshold question of notice turns on whether defendant may be charged with constructive notice that the chair was defective. Claimant himself did not notice anything wrong with the chair prior to sitting on it, and there was no other testimony or other evidence as to the condition of the chair prior to or after claimant’s accident, which militates against a finding that the defect was visible and apparent. Additionally, there is a glaring lack of proof as to how long the chair existed in its defective condition so as to conclude that defendant had a sufficient period of time to remedy the defect.[3] Accordingly, in the absence of evidence that the defect was visible and apparent and that it existed for a period of time, claimant has failed to demonstrate that defendant should be charged with constructive notice of the defective chair.

Claimant’s argument that defendant knew or should have known of the existence of the defective chair through regular inspections is unavailing. He cites no authority for the proposition that defendant had an obligation to make regular inspections of the chair, and even if there were such an obligation, it would only create a duty to inspect. Claimant adduced no evidence that such a duty, if it existed, was breached, and thus, this argument does not permit a finding of constructive notice.

Proof of actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition is not required if the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is invoked[4] (see Levinstim v Parker, 27 AD3d 698 [2d Dept 2006]; Parsons v State of New York, 31 AD2d 596 [3d Dept 1968]; Katz v Goldring, 237 App Div 824 [2d Dept 1932]). “Where the actual or specific cause of an accident is unknown, under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur [the fact finder] may in certain circumstances infer negligence merely from the happening of an event and the defendant’s relation to it” (Kambat v St. Francis Hosp., 89 NY2d 489, 494 [1997]). The inference of negligence is permitted if the proof establishes that “(1) the event must be of a kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence; (2) it must be caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant; (3) it must not have been due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the [claimant]” (Corcoran v Banner Super Mkt., 19 NY2d 425, 430 [1967], quoting Prosser, Torts, § 39, p. 218 [3d ed.]; see also Morejon v Rais Constr. Co., 7 NY3d 203, 209 [2006]; Kambat, supra).

At trial, claimant failed to prove the “exclusive control” element of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine. “While it is true that [claimant] need not establish that there was only a single person or entity in control of the item that caused the injury” (Raimondi v New York Racing Assn., 213 AD2d 708, 709 [2d Dept 1995]), claimant must prove that defendant or its agents exercised “sufficient exclusivity [over the defective chair] to fairly rule out the chance that the defect in the [chair] was caused by some agency other than defendant’s negligence” (id.; see also Dermatossian v New York City Tr. Auth., 67 NY2d 219, 227 [1986]; Loiacono v Stuyvesant Bagels, Inc., 29 AD3d 537 [2d Dept 2006]). Claimant has failed to prove “sufficient exclusivity” over the defective chair, as there was no evidence adduced at trial that defendant or its agents controlled or restricted access to the laboratory room in which the defective chair was located. Indeed, claimant’s own testimony illustrated that he was free to access the laboratory room that contained the chair on two occasions. Moreover, on both occasions he encountered the same woman whom he assumed to be a student, not an employee, of SUNY Stony Brook, further demonstrating that individuals who were not defendant’s agent had access to the room and the chair. Thus, claimant has not proven his entitlement to the res ipsa loquitur inference.
Defendant is not liable to claimant for his injuries, and the claim must be dismissed. The Chief Clerk is directed to enter judgment in favor of defendant, dismissing the claim. Any motions not previously ruled upon are hereby DENIED.

Let judgment be entered accordingly.

November 24, 2008
Albany, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1]. Although the claim is captioned “Glen S. Pettit,” the proper spelling of his first name is “Glenn.” The claim of Kathleen Pettit, Glenn’s wife, is derivative in nature, and all references to “claimant” shall mean Glenn Pettit, unless otherwise noted.
[2]. All references to the trial transcript are designated by “T”.
[3]. At trial and in his post-trial memorandum, claimant’s counsel argued that the failure of defendant to preserve the defective chair was spoliation of evidence that deprived claimant of “an opportunity to examine the subject chair” (Claimant’s Post-Trial Memorandum, dated August 8, 2008, at 3). While claimant did not identify what relief, if any, he was seeking with regard to the alleged spoliation, the Court notes that claimant’s conclusory allegations and arguments fail to establish claimant’s entitlement to relief due to the alleged spoliation of evidence (see Abenante v Star Gas Corp., 278 AD2d 438 [2d Dept 2000]; Gallo v Bay Ridge Lincoln Mercury, Inc., 262 AD2d 450 [2d Dept 1999]).
[4]. Claimant’s counsel made a motion at trial to conform the pleadings to the proof and to amend the bill of particulars to include “a claim of res ipsa loquitur” (T:84-85). Defendant opposes the motion on the ground that the jurisdictional pleading requirements for claims against the State of New York prohibits that relief at this late date. In light of this Court’s conclusion, infra, that the proof at trial does not warrant the inference of res ipsa loquitur, claimant’s motion is denied as unnecessary.