New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

MASON v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2008-044-530, Claim No. 113402, Motion No. M-74370


Synopsis


Claimant’s motion for partial summary judgment in inmate’s claim for injuries incurred in collapse of bunk bed denied; question of fact remained regarding whether defendant had exclusive control over the bed for the six years prior to the accident.

Case Information

UID:
2008-044-530
Claimant(s):
WILLIAM B. MASON
Claimant short name:
MASON
Footnote (claimant name) :

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

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
113402
Motion number(s):
M-74370
Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
CATHERINE C. SCHAEWE
Claimant’s attorney:
LOUIS-JACK POZNER, P.C.BY: Louis-Jack Pozner, Esq., of counsel
Defendant’s attorney:
HON. ANDREW M. CUOMO, ATTORNEY GENERALBY: James E. Shoemaker, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
March 31, 2008
City:
Binghamton
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision

Claimant filed this claim to recover for personal injuries allegedly received while he was an inmate assigned to Dorm 1, Cube 4 at Camp Pharsalia Correctional Facility (Camp Pharsalia). Claimant was allegedly lying on the bottom bunk, to which he was assigned, when the top bunk (and the inmate assigned to it) collapsed and fell onto claimant, apparently causing injuries to his head and upper body. Defendant State of New York (defendant) answered and asserted several affirmative defenses. Claimant now moves for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability. Defendant opposes the motion. Claimant replies. Claimant argues that the top bunk collapsed due to defendant’s negligent assembly of the bunk beds. Claimant further contends that because defendant provided the bunk beds, it is responsible for the dangerous condition, and therefore notice of that condition is not required in order to establish liability. Conversely, defendant asserts that there is no evidence that the State was on notice that claimant’s bunk bed was not properly assembled at time of the incident.

Claimant avers that on July 2, 2006, he was lying on his bottom bunk bed when the bed over him, which was occupied by inmate Kyrone Doughty, collapsed on top of him. Claimant states that after the incident, he filed a request through the Freedom of Information Law and determined that a significant number of bunk beds in his dorm had been improperly assembled. Claimant denies that either he or Doughty tampered with the beds at any time after they occupied their cube.

Claimant provides a copy of a memo from Barton Dubois, the facility’s Fire and Safety Officer at the time of the incident, concerning “Bed Bunks Assembly.” In that memo dated July 13, 2006, Dubois stated that all bunk beds had been inspected and the beds in Dorm 3 and Dorm 4 were all properly assembled. Dubois stated that approximately 20 beds in Dorm 2[1] had not been assembled correctly and that inmate crews properly reassembled those beds.

Claimant also submits affidavits from several other inmates. Inmate Kyrone Doughty, claimant’s cellmate at the that time, stated that he was sleeping on his bed in Dorm 1[2] when the bed crashed down on top of claimant. Doughty stated that several other inmates rushed over, helped him off the bed and then removed the bed from claimant. Doughty averred that claimant was holding his head, and appeared to be in pain. Doughty stated that both men were lying on their respective bunks at the time the bed collapsed, and denied contributing to the accident in any manner.

Inmate Thomas Charles stated that on the morning of July 2, 2006, he heard a loud crash. When he investigated the noise, he saw Kyrone Doughty and the top bunk in 4-Cube on top of claimant in the bottom bunk. Charles stated that he and three other inmates took the bed off claimant so that he could get out from under it.

Inmate Charles Daniels stated that he occupied Cube 5, next to claimant’s cube, and was alerted by the loud crashing noise and a scream for help. Daniels stated that he was one of several inmates who lifted the top bunk off claimant.

Inmate Ross Davis stated that when he heard the crash, he jumped up and observed the top bunk in 4-Cube, with Doughty still on it, lying on top of claimant. Davis stated that he ran over, assisted Doughty off the top bunk and, with the help of the two other inmates, lifted the bed off claimant.

Inmate Keith Pillich stated that on July 13, 2006, subsequent to the collapse of the bed, Correction Officer (CO) Dubois provided hammers and crowbars to Pillich and inmate Rudrick Soler, and requested that they disassemble and reassemble 37 beds which had been improperly assembled. Pillich indicated that the beds were located in Dorm 1.[3] Pillich also stated that CO Dubois indicated that the improper assembly was an “imminant [sic] [safety] emergency . . . that the [S]tate was liable because it knew previously this was a hazard and . . . ignored it,” and claimant was seriously injured as a result. Inmate Rudrick Soler corroborated Pillich’s statement.

It is well established that the State has a duty to maintain its facilities in a reasonably safe condition (Preston v State of New York, 59 NY2d 997 [1983]). However, 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 [1985]; Condon v State of New York, 193 AD2d 874 [1993]). To prevail on his claim that defendant was negligent, claimant must prove that a dangerous condition existed; that the State either created said dangerous condition or had actual or constructive notice thereof and failed to alleviate said condition within a reasonable time; that said dangerous condition was a proximate cause of the accident; and that claimant sustained damages (see Gordon v American Museum of Natural History, 67 NY2d 836 [1986]; Mercer v City of New York, 223 AD2d 688 [1996], affd 88 NY2d 955 [1996]). It is equally well settled that on a motion for summary judgment, the movant has the burden of setting forth a prima facie case, which establishes all elements of the cause of action and entitles that party to judgment as a matter of law (see e.g. Alvarez v Prospect Hosp., 68 NY2d 320, 324 [1986]).

Based upon those uncontradicted statements set forth in his motion papers, claimant has established that defendant provided him with the bunk bed, and that neither he nor his cellmate altered its condition or used the bunk bed inappropriately. Further, claimant has set forth evidence that the top bunk inexplicably collapsed on top of him, causing injuries. Claimant has thus met his initial burden establishing his entitlement to judgment as a matter of law (id.).

The burden therefore shifts to defendant to submit evidence in admissible form which creates a question of fact (id.). In opposition, defendant accordingly provides the affidavits of Barton Dubois (former Fire and Safety Officer), John Carhart (the current Fire and Safety Officer) and Richard Johnson (Plant Utility Engineer I).

Dubois states that he was assigned to Camp Pharsalia from September 1988 through October 21, 2006. As Fire and Safety Officer, Dubois states that he investigated claimant’s accident and inspected all the bunk beds in all of the dorms in the process. Dubois avers that the bunk beds in Dorm 3 and Dorm 4 were all properly assembled, but that he found approximately 20 beds in Dorm 1 which had not been assembled correctly. Dubois states that he then supervised a crew of inmates who reassembled the beds in a proper manner, and that he personally inspected each bed when it was completed. Dubois denies knowledge of any prior incidents concerning beds which had not been properly assembled, and further denies making any statements implying that the State had knowledge of or ignored any alleged dangerous condition due to a defective assembly of the beds. Dubois states that he believed that the beds were originally assembled correctly,[4] and that if an employee had noticed any defect, it would have been corrected immediately.

John Carhart, the current Fire and Safety Officer, states that the beds had been installed in Dorm 1 prior to his assignment as Dorm 1 Correction Officer in 2003, but he noticed that “the beds all appeared to have been put together properly.” Carhart states that Dorm 1 had been closed in July 2005, but upon direction from Department of Correctional Services Central Office, the dorm was left virtually unchanged for its potential reoccupation. Carhart states that in early 2006, inmates were moved from Dorm 2 back into Dorm 1. Carhart states that while the bunk beds were moved during specific cleaning procedures, they were moved as a unit and were not taken apart. Carhart denies receiving any complaints about beds which had been incorrectly assembled, and did not discover any work order for repairs. Carhart reiterates that if any staff member had noticed that a bed was not assembled properly, the bed would have been repaired immediately.

Richard Johnson, Plant Utility Engineer I, states that the bunk beds were installed prior to 1999, when he began his employment at Camp Pharsalia. Johnson denies that there were any complaints about the assembly of the beds prior to claimant’s accident, and also denies finding any work orders concerning the reassembly of beds prior to that time.

Defendant provided a copy of a memo dated July 11, 2006 from CO Caulkins to Lieutenant Fox concerning claimant’s incident. Caulkins related a slightly different version of the incident, indicating that Doughty was getting up onto his bunk, but because the beds were not locked together, the top bunk fell onto claimant who was on the bottom bunk. Caulkins reported that claimant was struck in the head, right hand and right elbow, and that his lamp and radio were broken. Caulkins stated that an accident report had been filed for both inmates, and a report had been sent to the watch commander. Caulkins also stated that after the incident, the beds were properly locked together, thereby eliminating the necessity for a bed exchange.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to defendant as the non-moving party, and affording the State the benefit of every reasonable inference, claimant’s motion for summary judgment must be denied (see Boyce v Vazquez, 249 AD2d 724, 726 [1998]). Claimant is correct in asserting that notice of the defective condition is not required in the instance where defendant actually created the condition. However, based on defendant’s responding papers, it appears that the bunk beds in Dorm 1 were assembled sometime prior to 1999. Notwithstanding that Dorm 1 had been closed for slightly less than one year, the beds had thus apparently been in use by inmates of the facility for approximately six years prior to this incident.[5] Based upon the passage of that length of time, and the apparent ease with which the beds were locked together after the accident, it would be speculative for this Court to find, as a matter of law, that defendant created the allegedly dangerous condition. Moreover, while defendant was initially responsible for assembly of the beds, it obviously did not retain exclusive control over the beds for that entire six-year period, since inmates were residing in the cubes. Contrary to claimant’s argument, this situation is not analogous to one of res ipsa loquitur, and defendant’s negligence cannot be inferred solely from the occurrence of this incident (see Rondeau v Georgia Pac. Corp., 29 AD3d 1066, 1069 [2006]; Dermatossian v New York City Tr. Auth., 67 NY2d 219, 226-227 [1986]).[6] Even accepting as true claimant’s statement that neither he nor Doughty tampered with the bunk beds, those beds were nonetheless exposed to countless other inmates - and thus to the possibility of potential tampering - during the six years prior to the bed’s collapse upon claimant (Savio v State of New York, 268 AD2d 907, 909 [2000], lv denied 95 NY2d 758 [2000]). Defendant’s lack of exclusive control over the bed for that lengthy period of time raises a question of fact, thus precluding the grant of summary judgment to claimant on the issue of liability.

Claimant’s motion for partial summary judgment is denied in its entirety.

March 31, 2008
Binghamton, New York

HON. CATHERINE C. SCHAEWE
Judge of the Court of Claims


The following papers were read on claimant’s motion:

1) Notice of Motion filed on December 31, 2007; Affidavit of Louis-Jack Pozner, Esq., sworn to on December 18, 2007, and attached Exhibits A through E.

2) Affirmation in Opposition of James E. Shoemaker, AAG, dated January 16, 2008, and attached Exhibits A through F.


3) Defendant’s Memorandum of Law dated January 16, 2008.


4) Reply Affidavit of Louis-Jack Pozner, Esq., sworn to on January 23, 2008.


Filed papers: Claim filed on March 5, 2007; Verified Answer filed on April 6, 2007.


[1]. Dubois’ memo indicates that the improperly assembled beds were in Dorm 2. However, his affidavit submitted as an exhibit to defendant’s opposition papers states that those 20 beds were located in Dorm 1. The Court presumes that in his memo, Dubois meant Dorm 1, where claimant’s accident occurred.
[2]. Doughty specifically states that he and claimant were in Dorm 1 “substituting as Dorm 2.” Although it is unclear precisely why Doughty (and other inmates) refer to Dorm 1 “substituting as Dorm 2,” it may be related movement of inmates from Dorm 2 into Dorm 1 when Dorm 1 reopened in early 2006 (see infra, 5-6).
[3]. Pillich also refers to Dorm 1 “substituting as Dorm 2.”
[4]. The question of whether the initial assembly of the beds was proper must be determined at trial when the Court will assess all evidence, including the post-incident discovery of at least 20 beds that were improperly assembled. The Court notes that Inmate Pillich indicates that 37 beds in Dorm 1 were disassembled and reassembled after claimant’s incident.
[5]. Neither Carhart nor Johnson specifically stated that either of them conducted a formal inspection of the beds. However, Carhart did state that “the beds all appeared to have been put together properly,” implicitly indicating that he had at least looked at them in a cursory manner.
[6]. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur permits the inference of “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]). A claimant must establish that (1) the event does not usually occur in the absence of negligence, (2) the instrumentality or agency that caused the event was within the exclusive control of the defendant, and (3) the claimant did not contribute to the cause of the accident (see Smith v Moore, 227 AD2d 854, 855 [1996]; DeSimone v Inserra Supermarkets, 207 AD2d 615, 616 [1994]).