New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

ALVAREZ v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2009-044-003, Claim No. 110744


State found 60% liable for inmate claimant’s injuries incurred while cleaning large, heavy kitchen grates. State aware of dangerous nature of task, due to injuries received by maintenance worker in identical incident several months prior to claimant’s injuries. Claimant awarded $900 after deduction for his own negligence.

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:
HON. ANDREW M. CUOMO, ATTORNEY GENERALBY: James E. Shoemaker, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
January 28, 2009

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Claimant, an inmate proceeding pro se, filed this claim against defendant State of New York (defendant) for an injury to his finger received while working in the kitchen at Elmira Correctional Facility (Elmira). Trial of the matter was held at Elmira on November 5, 2008.

At trial, claimant stated that he was cleaning a drain in the facility’s kitchen on January 9, 2005. In the course of removing one of the drain covers, it slid and smashed the last joint of the middle finger on his left hand.[1] He received four sutures.

Claimant stated that the drain covers were very large and heavy. He said they were grills or grates approximately 2½ feet in length, made of iron, and set in a row into the floor. In order to clean the drains, he had to slide each one down to an opening that would allow him to lift it out. He had to remove between 20 and 30 drain covers every time he cleaned the drains. He said that he was not given a hook or gloves with which to remove the covers. Claimant said he had been working in the kitchen for approximately five years, but these drain covers were relatively new.

On cross-examination, claimant acknowledged he had been cleaning the drains for several months, two to three times per week. However, he contended that defendant should have trained him to remove the drain covers properly or provided a safe working environment. He testified that a facility maintenance worker (not an inmate) had injured himself in the same manner, prior to claimant’s injury.

Claimant stated that the injury was very painful, and that the end of the finger essentially burst when the cover slid and caught it. The nail fell off shortly after the injury. At the time of the trial, approximately four years after the accident, a scar was still visible and the end of the finger was somewhat flattened, although the nail had grown back. He said that he was given two or three weeks of bed rest after the injury pursuant to medical orders, and took ibuprofen for the pain.

Claimant also said that he had received instructions in the infirmary that the sutures should be removed on January 17, 2005. Claimant testified that he was not called to remove the stitches at that time, and that he eventually went to the clinic to have them removed because they were falling out.[2]

Correction Officer J. Simone testified on claimant’s behalf. Simone saw claimant’s finger after the incident. He stated that the inmates were given latex gloves to use when cleaning the drains. He acknowledged that a “civilian”[3] had injured himself in the exact same way prior to claimant’s accident. He thought that injury occurred when the civilian was showing an inmate how to move the grates down to remove them.

Simone said that the drain covers were removed by “slid[ing them] down to an area where there’s an opening and they lift them out and set them on the side.” Notably, Simone testified that the manner of removing the drain covers “was not the best way to do it.” He said the covers were very heavy and would stick when someone was trying to slide them. No equipment (such as a metal hook or handle) was given to the inmates to help them slide the covers down to the opening. He stated that the covers were replaced six months to a year after claimant’s injury.

Defendant owes inmates engaged in work programs a duty to provide reasonably safe machinery and equipment, as well as adequate training and supervision for the work and safe operation of that equipment (Manganaro v State of New York, 24 AD3d 1003, 1004 [2005]; Muhammad v State of New York, 15 AD3d 807, 808 [2005]; Martinez v State of New York, 225 AD2d 877, 878 [1996]; Kandrach v State of New York, 188 AD2d 910, 913 [1992] ). 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 [1985]; Condon v State of New York, 193 AD2d 874 [1993]; Perez v State of New York, Ct Cl, Aug. 26, 2005, Ruderman, J., Claim No. 104161-A [2005-010-048]). An inmate must use reasonable care, and when he fails to do so, he must take some responsibility for his own negligence (Martinez v State of New York, supra; Carter v State of New York, 194 AD2d 967 [1993]; Hicks v State of New York, 124 AD2d 949 [1986]).

It is apparent from the testimony of both claimant and Officer Simone that the removal of the grates was an inherently dangerous task, and that the inmates cleaning the drains were not given the proper equipment to perform that job safely. Moreover, defendant must be deemed to have been aware of the dangerous nature of the task, due to the accident of the maintenance worker prior to claimant’s injury, which apparently occurred in precisely the same manner as claimant’s injury. However, claimant had been performing this procedure for two to three times a week, removing 20 to 30 grates each time, for several months. He was well aware that the grates would stick, and had a responsibility to be careful in moving them.

Liability for claimant’s injury itself is hereby apportioned to the defendant in the amount of 60% and to the claimant in the amount of 40%. With regard to claimant’s cause of action for negligent medical treatment, although claimant’s stitches were obviously not removed on the date originally scheduled, no evidence was submitted which would show whether defendant was supposed to bring claimant to the infirmary on that date, or whether claimant was supposed to request sick call. Moreover, there was no medical evidence that claimant suffered any further injury because of the failure to remove the sutures in a timely manner. Claimant has not met his burden of proof on this issue, and thus defendant cannot be held liable for any delay in the removal of the stitches.

While the injury was no doubt painful for some period of time, as claimant testified, there was no residual impact on the usage of the finger, and it should be noted that it was claimant’s non-dominant hand. Based upon these factors and claimant’s testimony, the Court assesses total damages at $1,500, with claimant receiving 60% thereof, or $900.

To the extent that claimant has paid a filing fee, it is recoverable pursuant to Court of Claims Act § 11-a (2).

Let judgment be entered accordingly.

January 28, 2009
Binghamton, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1]. Claimant testified that he is right-handed.
[2]. Claimant’s medical records, submitted as Claimant’s Exhibit 1, indicate that the sutures were supposed to be removed on January 17, 2005, as he testified, but were not actually taken out until January 24, 2005.
[3]. All quotes herein are taken from the Court’s recording of the proceedings.