Court dismissed former inmate's claim for injuries when bed collapsed after trial, due to State's lack of notice of dangerous condition.
|Claimant(s):||WILLIAM B. MASON|
|Claimant short name:||MASON|
|Footnote (claimant name) :|
|Defendant(s):||THE STATE OF NEW YORK|
|Footnote (defendant name) :|
|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 GENERAL
BY: James E. Shoemaker, Assistant Attorney General
|Third-party defendant's attorney:|
|Signature date:||November 10, 2009|
|See also (multicaptioned case)|
Claimant, a former inmate, brought this claim to recover for injuries incurred when a bunk bed partially collapsed on him while he was incarcerated at Camp Pharsalia Correctional Facility (Camp Pharsalia). Trial of the matter was bifurcated and held in the Binghamton District on October 14, 2009. This decision addresses only the issue of liability.
Dormitory Officer Caulkins testified on claimant's behalf. She was on duty in Dorm 1 on July 2, 2006, the date of the accident. She said she was sitting at the officers' desk and could see claimant's bed through the "cubes,"(1) as it was three or four cubes away. She heard a noise, looked over, and saw one corner of the upper bunk sagging, and claimant holding it up with his right hand. She said it appeared that claimant's bunkmate, Kyrone Doughty, had been climbing up onto the top bunk and one corner of the bunk collapsed. She said that she had not previously noticed that the upper and lower bunks of claimant's bed were not locked together, but said that the upper bunk could not have fallen if it had been properly locked onto the lower bunk. She prepared a memorandum shortly thereafter regarding the incident, which was introduced into evidence as Claimant's Exhibit 1.
Caulkins explained that if the beds were not properly locked together, the top bunk would sit several inches higher than if it was correctly attached. Pictures submitted at trial showed that the upper bunk had a metal flange containing two pins which would slide down into two corresponding sockets on the frame of the lower bed (Claimant's Exhibits 3 and 4). Caulkins stated that on her rounds she never observed that this bunk or any of the others were not properly locked together. Caulkins stated that any inmate tampering with the locking mechanism on the beds would be subject to disciplinary action.
Richard Johnson, at the time in charge of maintenance at Camp Pharsalia, also testified. He said he had never been involved in assembling the bunk beds, and that he had not been able to find any work order requesting that maintenance assemble or reassemble any of the bunk beds. He said he did not inspect the beds prior to their use by the inmates, nor did he have any reason to believe that the beds were ever inspected to make sure they were locked together.
John Carhart also testified. He was the Fire and Safety Officer at Camp Pharsalia at a time subsequent to the accident, and became aware of the accident in a review of accident report forms. He indicated that fire and safety inspections would not have included checking the beds to make sure they were properly assembled. Carhart stated that he had worked in Dorm 1 for three or four years. He said that inmates would move the beds and unlock the bunks to raise them when correction officers were not watching, to give the person in the lower bunk more headroom. He said they would frequently readjust them so that the bottom pin would slide into the top socket, rather than both pins being in the corresponding socket.
Barton Dubois, Fire and Safety Officer at the facility at the time of the accident, testified on claimant's behalf. Subsequent to claimant's accident, he was told by Lieutenant Nelson Fox to inspect all the bunk beds to determine whether they were properly locked together. He inspected the beds, and found that 20 beds in Dorm 1(2) had not been locked together, according to a memorandum he prepared dated July 13, 2006, which was submitted into evidence as Claimant's Exhibit 2. Dubois believed that he was instructed to inspect the beds on the same date he prepared the memorandum. He had an inmate crew assist him in properly assembling the beds, which he described as simply lifting the top bunk and reinserting the tabs into the correct sockets.
Dubois stated that he did not know anything about the condition of the improperly assembled beds between July 2, 2006 and July 13, 2006. He readily acknowledged that they could have been tampered with by the inmates during that time. He confirmed that an inmate tampering with the beds would be subject to disciplinary action. He also stated that he was not aware that anyone was required to inspect the beds prior to their use by inmates.
Claimant testified on his own behalf. He stated that he was originally housed in Dorm 2 at Camp Pharsalia, but that the inmates in Dorm 2 were moved back into Dorm 1 two or three months prior to his accident due to the collapse of a shower wall in Dorm 2. Claimant was a laundry porter at the time, which required him to go into the laundry room at the rear of Dorm 1 on a daily basis prior to the inmates moving there. He said that prior to the move, all the beds were disassembled and stacked against one wall. When the inmates were ordered to move to Dorm 1, all the beds and lockers had been assembled and distributed into the appropriate locations. He did not assist in assembling the beds or moving the furniture.
Claimant testified that on the date of his accident, he had just come in from working and was lying in his bed reading and listening to the radio while waiting for dinner time. His bunkmate was in the upper bunk. Suddenly one end of the bunk collapsed on his head. He stated that the entire headboard of the upper bunk fell on him, rather than just one corner. Other inmates helped lift the bed off of him, and he was escorted to the infirmary by Officer Caulkins. He said that he was not rendered unconscious by the blow to his head.
Claimant said that the bed had been reassembled when he came back from the infirmary, but that it was still not properly locked in place. The problem was fixed when the Fire and Safety Officer (DuBois) inspected and reassembled the beds a few days later. At that point, he said, the upper bunk was a few inches lower than it had previously been.
Claimant said he did not help reassemble the beds, and denied that he had tampered with the bed to raise the upper bunk before the accident. He acknowledged that he had been in prison twice prior to his incarceration at the time of his accident, and that he slept in a bunk bed at one of the facilities in which he had previously resided.
Nelson Fox, a retired correction lieutenant, testified for defendant. Fox said that he became aware of claimant's accident shortly after it happened, and that he requested the facility's Fire and Safety Officer (Dubois) to inspect all the beds. He was aware that Dubois enlisted inmates to assist in reassembling the improperly locked beds, and said he did not see that as a problem. Fox also stated that Camp Pharsalia was a minimum security facility, and that therefore many potential disciplinary issues were handled through counseling by the correction officers, rather than through formal disciplinary action.
Defendant moved to dismiss both at the close of claimant's proof and at the conclusion of the trial, on the ground that claimant failed to make a prima facie case. The Court reserved decision on the motions.
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 ), and with respect to the safety of persons on its property, the duty of the State is one of reasonable care under the circumstances (see Miller v State of New York, 62 NY2d 506, 513 ; Preston v State of New York, supra; Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233, 241 ). 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 ; Condon v State of New York, 193 AD2d 874 ).
To prevail on his claim, 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 ; Mercer v City of New York, 223 AD2d 688 , affd 88 NY2d 955 ).
It is readily apparent that where these bunk beds were improperly fastened together, a dangerous condition existed. Consequently, the central issue becomes whether defendant created this dangerous condition, or had actual or constructive notice thereof.
In his closing, claimant's counsel argued that the Court was entitled to presume that neither claimant nor the other inmates would have tampered with the bed because they would have been subject to disciplinary action. Accordingly, he contended, the Court should find that defendant created this dangerous condition by having the beds improperly assembled (whether by inmates or by maintenance staff) prior to the inmates' move back into Dorm 1.
Such an inference could possibly be drawn from the fact that at least 20 beds were found to be improperly fastened together in Dorm 1 subsequent to the accident. However, in the Court's perspective, it is at least equally likely - despite counsel's interesting argument(3) that inmates would never break the facility rules - that the inmates themselves made adjustments to the beds in order to have more headroom in the lower bunk. Moreover, even if defendant had supervised the improper assembly of 19 of the 20 beds, the record is completely devoid of proof that an inmate did not tamper with claimant's bed sometime in the 2 to 3 months between the inmates' move into Dorm 1 and claimant's accident. Claimant's testimony that he did not tamper with the bed and did not see anyone else do it is simply not adequate to fulfill the necessary burden of proof required to find defendant liable in this case.
Claimant's failure to prove that defendant either created or had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition mandates dismissal. Defendant's motion, made at the close of the case, is hereby granted, and the claim is dismissed. Any motions not previously determined are hereby denied. Let judgment be entered accordingly.
November 10, 2009
Binghamton, New York
CATHERINE C. SCHAEWE
Judge of the Court of Claims
1. All quotes herein have been taken from the Court's recording of the proceedings. Based on the pictures submitted at trial, a cube (in this context) refers to an arrangement of bunk beds and storage lockers arranged to give each pair of inmates a living area in a large, open dormitory.
2. Although the memorandum he prepared indicated that the improperly assembled beds were located in Dorm 2, he testified at trial that "Dorm 2" was a typographical error and those beds were actually located in Dorm 1.
3. Counsel's argument is, obviously, transparently false, as it completely ignores the underlying reality of how the inmates came to reside in this facility.