New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

MARTINO v. STATE OF NEW YORK, #2008-039-083, Claim No. 111420


Synopsis


Claimant was injured when he fell from the top of a shelving unit while working as a member of an inmate work crew. Following the liability phase of a bifurcated trial, the Court concludes that claimant failed to establish, by a preponderance of the credible evidence, that defendant was liable. Based upon the competing proof that was presented, and recognizing that it is well settled that “an inmate must use ordinary care when engaging in work programs at the behest of correctional authorities” (Bernard v State of New York, 34 AD3d 1065, 1068 [2006]; see also Muhammad v State of New York, 15 AD3d 807, 808 [2005]), the Court cannot say that claimant met his burden to establish that defendant failed “to provide safe equipment and proper warnings and instructions regarding the use of such equipment” (Bernard v State of New York, supra at 1067; see also Letterese v State of New York, 33 AD3d 593 [2006]; compare Bernard v State of New York, supra).

Case Information

UID:
2008-039-083
Claimant(s):
ALONZO MARTINO
Claimant short name:
MARTINO
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
111420
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
James H. Ferreira
Claimant’s attorney:
Alonzo Martino, pro se
Defendant’s attorney:
Hon. Andrew M. Cuomo
Attorney General of the State of New York
By: Michael W. FriedmanAssistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
June 10, 2008
City:
Albany
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision

Claimant Alonzo Martino seeks damages as a result of injuries he allegedly sustained on January 31, 2005 when he fell from the top of a shelving unit. Claimant alleges that defendant was negligent in failing to provide a safe work environment.

The liability phase of a bifurcated trial was held on March 19, 2008. Claimant proceeded pro se at the trial of this matter, and he was the only witness to testify in support of his claim. According to claimant, on January 31, 2005 at approximately 10:00 AM, he was working as a member of “crew 20,” an inmate work crew from Hudson Correctional Facility that was assigned to a project at the Campus Building 18 storeroom located on Washington Avenue in Albany. Claimant testified that the storeroom manager, Ms. Susan Duncan, instructed him to ascend a shelving unit that was approximately seven to eight feet high for the purpose of rearranging some boxes. Claimant grabbed a hard hat and scaled the shelving unit until he reached the top. While at the top of the shelving unit, claimant asked Duncan how she wanted him to arrange the boxes. Claimant then turned, lost his grip and his footing and fell backward. He landed on a wooden and metal cart. Claimant further testified that, with the exception of a hard hat, there was no other safety equipment available.

Claimant also offered various documents in support of his claim which were subsequently admitted into evidence. Those documents include a memorandum by Correction Officer K. Silvestris to Sergeant G. Acker dated October 26, 2005 and marked as claimant’s exhibit “2”; a letter from Thomas G. Eagen, Director of the Inmate Grievance Program, to claimant dated August 4, 2005 and marked as claimant’s exhibit “5”; and a handwritten letter from claimant to Eagen dated August 8, 2005 and marked as claimant’s exhibit “6”. The Court reserved its ruling with respect to claimant’s offer of an incident report in the form of a memorandum from Duncan to Nancy Breyette dated March 29, 2005 and marked as claimant’s exhibit “2A”. The Court now finds that claimant failed to lay an adequate foundation to establish the reliability of the memorandum (see CPLR 4518). Accordingly, claimant’s exhibit, marked for identification as “2A”, cannot be admitted into evidence.

On cross-examination, claimant testified, among other things, that he filed a grievance with the clerk at Hudson Correctional Facility one week after the incident. A hearing was held, but claimant testified that he did not receive a decision. Defendant offered proof in the form of a handwritten letter by claimant dated October 18, 2005 which was marked as defendant’s exhibit “D” and admitted into evidence. The letter states, among other things, that claimant “put a grievance in October 6, 2005” and was offered to show that a grievance was filed approximately nine months after the incident. Claimant further testified that on the date of the incident there were no ladders near the shelving unit, and that he had observed ladders on prior occasions but that the ladders were not always there. Claimant recalled using a ladder on a prior occasion when he was moving pipes. On redirect, claimant testified that prior to October 2005 he “put in” six grievances but all were discarded. In support thereof, he referred to exhibit “5”, which was admitted into evidence without objection from defendant. Thereafter, defendant moved the Court for an order granting dismissal of the claim, and the Court reserved its decision.

Defendant called New York State Office of General Services employee Duncan to testify about her observations on the day of the accident. Duncan testified that on the day of the accident she and other supervisors instructed the inmates who were participants in the work release program. More specifically, Duncan instructed claimant to place material from a flatbed below onto the top shelving unit and to “straighten[ ] out what was already up there.” She stated that there were three ladders present in the storeroom on the day of the accident and that one of the ladders was approximately 10 feet away from the shelving unit in question. Duncan testified that it was her normal practice to instruct inmates to use the ladders and that she instructed claimant to use a ladder on the day of the accident. However, Duncan was aware that claimant did not use a ladder because she observed him climbing the shelving unit. Duncan was approximately 20 feet away when claimant fell, but she did not see him fall. Nor did Duncan observe any correction officers at the site of claimant’s fall.

“ ‘It is well settled that in order to set forth a prima facie case of negligence, the plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) a breach of that duty; and (3) an injury suffered by the plaintiff which was proximately caused by the breach [citations omitted]’ ” (Kampff v Ulster Sanitation, Inc., 280 AD2d 797, 797 [2001], quoting Murray v New York City Hous. Auth., 269 AD2d 288, 289 [2000]). “Defendant, through its correctional authorities, owes inmates in a work program a duty to provide safe equipment and proper warnings and instructions regarding the use of such equipment” (Bernard v State of New York, 34 AD3d 1065, 1067 [2006]). “However, defendant ‘is not an insurer of inmate safety, and negligence cannot be inferred solely from the happening of an incident’ ” (id., quoting Muhammad v State of New York, 15 AD3d 807, 808 [2005]), “and there will be no liability where the safety measures taken ‘were reasonable and adequate under the circumstances’ ” (Bernard v State of New York, supra at 1067, quoting Maldonado v State of New York, 255 AD2d 630, 631 [1998]).

The Court has considered the credible evidence presented at trial and concludes that claimant failed to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that defendant is liable. Although claimant appeared to the Court to testify in a credible manner when he stated that there were no nearby ladders on the day of the accident, Duncan also appeared to testify in a credible manner that there was a ladder positioned only 10 feet away from where the accident occurred and that she had instructed claimant to use a ladder. Notably, claimant also testified that he had observed and used a ladder at Building 18 on a prior occasion. Based upon the foregoing proof, and recognizing that it is well settled that “an inmate must use ordinary care when engaging in work programs at the behest of correctional authorities” (Bernard v State of New York, supra at 1068; see also Muhammad v State of New York, supra at 808), the Court cannot say that claimant has met his burden to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that on January 31, 2005 defendant failed “to provide safe equipment and proper warnings and instructions regarding the use of such equipment” (Bernard v State of New York, supra at 1067; see also Letterese v State of New York, 33 AD3d 593 [2006]; compare Bernard v State of New York, supra).

Accordingly, the claim is hereby dismissed in its entirety. Any motions upon which the Court had previously reserved or which remain undecided are hereby denied.

The Clerk of the Court is directed to enter judgment accordingly.


June 10, 2008
Albany, New York

HON. JAMES H. FERREIRA
Judge of the Court of Claims