New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
KNIGHT v. STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2010-018-138, Claim No. 112172

Synopsis

The proof presented did not establish the State's negligence or liability for Claimant's injuries.

The claim is dismissed.

Case information

UID: 2010-018-138
Claimant(s): WILLIE KNIGHT
Claimant short name: KNIGHT
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 112172
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: DIANE L. FITZPATRICK
Claimant's attorney: KELLY, GROSSMAN & FLANAGAN, LLP
By: Suzanne C. Flanagan, Esquire
Defendant's attorney: ANDREW M. CUOMO
Attorney General of the State of New York
By: Heather R. Rubinstein, Esquire
Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: August 30, 2010
City: Syracuse
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

This claim alleges that the State of New York, through its agents and employees at Cayuga Correctional Facility, was negligent by directing or allowing Claimant, an inmate, to walk through or near an area in a dangerous or hazardous condition. As a result, Claimant avers that he was injured. This case was bifurcated and this Decision relates solely to liability.

Recreation time at Cayuga Correctional Facility begins at 9:00 a.m. At least two correction officers are in the yard area overseeing the inmates, and a superior supervises the correction officers. On April 4, 2004, Correction Officers Stanton, MacGregor, and Marshall were working the yard and Lt. Bunnell(1) was the supervisor. Claimant called Lt. Bunnell, Correction Officer Stanton and testified himself.

A diagram of the "yard" area was admitted into evidence.(2) The entrance to the yard for inmates is on the southwest side of the Activities Building near the guard shack.(3) In the same vicinity, south of that building, although not readily identified on the diagram, the witnesses indicated there were handball, basketball courts, and the weight area.

Claimant testified that on April 4, 2004, he went to the yard area around 9:00 a.m. for recreation. Claimant usually walked through the hard-surfaced handball/basketball courts to the enclosed weight area. As he and the other inmates entered the yard, a correction officer was standing in the handball court area and told the inmates to walk around behind the bathroom.(4) Claimant described the officer as short, with a round face, glasses, a moustache, and short black and gray hair. According to Claimant, yellow caution tape ran from the entrance gate to the garbage cans near the bathroom. The tape marked an area that was under construction; a pipeline was being installed and the ground was muddy and dug up in spots.

As an inmate, Claimant was required to follow the order of the correction officer to take a different route. Claimant said as he walked he was looking ahead and slipped in the mud, injuring his ankle. He said there is a short length of pavement at the entrance of the yard then grass. He estimated that he took about four steps off the pavement when he fell in an area with wet, dug up dirt. He rolled then tried to get up, couldn't, and rolled again. Two inmates saw him fall and one went to notify a correction officer.(5) The officer who came to help was not the same one who directed Claimant to walk behind the bathroom. Claimant did not know the names of the inmates who witnessed the fall.

When asked the distance between where he fell and where he was when the correction officer came, Claimant could not say. He did not feel he was good at judging distances. Claimant testified that he told the correction officer who first arrived that he slipped on the mud and fell. He did not converse with a second correction officer who came to the scene shortly thereafter. Since he could not get up, Claimant was carried out of the yard and taken by van to the infirmary for treatment. At the infirmary, he signed the inmate injury report(6) which was written by the nurse and states that Claimant slipped on the grass. Claimant signed the report but testified that he told the nurse that he slipped in the mud.

Lt. Bunnell testified that an independent contractor had been working on an above ground pipeline in the yard but no work was being done April 4. The construction area was around the corner of the Activity Building(7) toward the middle of the yard.

That morning, Lt. Bunnell was near the gate to the yard about 8:55 a.m. but did not go in. He could not recall any other correction officer being at the gate but there were at least two other officers in the yard during recreation. He recalled Correction Officer John Stanton told him about Claimant's fall and they both went to investigate since they could not see him from the gate area.

Claimant was found behind the bathroom on the grass but told the lieutenant he slipped and fell on mud. Lt. Bunnell looked around to see what might have caused Claimant to fall; he could not understand why Claimant fell on the grassy area and wanted to be sure no one had assaulted him. He did not recall where the yellow caution tape was but he did say that there was no construction behind the bathroom. He estimated the distance from the end of the pavement by the corner of the activity building to where Claimant was lying behind the bathroom after the fall to be approximately 40 feet.

Lt. Bunnell spoke with other staff members and learned that two inmates witnessed Claimant's fall, but no other information was mentioned. At the time of his deposition,(8) the lieutenant did not remember the names of the other officers working the yard that day. At trial, using the logbook page,(9) Lt. Bunnell testified that in addition to Officer Stanton, Officers MacGregor and Marshall were on duty. The description of the correction officer who Claimant said ordered him to walk around the bathroom best fit Correction Officer Stanton. Correction Officers MacGregor and Marshall are both tall, and Officer Marshall is a Native American and is the only officer at Cayuga who wears his hair long and braided.

Officer Stanton testified that he was working the yard the morning Claimant fell and another inmate told him about the incident. He never spoke with Claimant about his fall and he didn't witness it. He was near the gate checking inmate identifications and could not see the area behind the bathroom. After seeing the logbook entries for April 4, 2004, Officer Stanton recalled the other correction officers working that day and agreed that he best fit Claimant's description of the correction officer who purportedly directed Claimant to walk behind the bathroom. However, he testified that he never gave such an order and that he did not hear anyone else give the order. On cross-examination, he did acknowledge that someone else could have given such an order.

As confirmed by other witnesses, Officer Stanton described the ground in the yard as being fairly level near the bathroom. He also said there was no construction behind the bathroom at any time. He marked Claimant's location after his fall with a dot on Exhibit F. He also placed an X where he recalled the construction to be in April 2004, and said he could barely see the construction area from the gate. He also marked the area where the ground was dug up from the construction with a pink marker. He did not mark the location of the yellow caution tape on the exhibit.

Defendant called Fire and Safety Officer Garry Sherman who did a records check of inmate injuries in the yard for 2003 and 2004. The construction project began in 2003. He found that other inmates were injured in the yard but not due to the pipeline construction.

Claimant argues not only that the State allowed a dangerous condition to exist on the property but that the State's agents or employees ordered Claimant to walk in or near it. As an inmate, Claimant was required to obey a directive from a correction officer.

The State of New York, just as private landowners, has a duty to maintain its property in a reasonably safe condition under the circumstances (Preston v State of New York, 59 NY2d 997, 998; Basso v Miller, 40 NY2d 233, 241). This duty extends to protect inmates in the State's correctional institutions from the foreseeable risk of harm (Heliodore v State of New York, 305 AD2d 708, 709; Bowers v State of New York, 241 AD2d 760; Mochen v State of New York, 57 AD2d 719). However, the State is not an insurer and negligence will not be inferred solely as a result of an accident (see Killeen v State of New York, 66 NY2d 850, 851; Mochen, 57 AD2d at 720). It is Claimant's burden to prove that a dangerous condition existed which the State created or of which it had actual or constructive notice and was a proximate cause of his injuries (Heliodore, 305 AD2d at 708; Goldman v Waldbaum, Inc., 297 AD2d 277; Condon v State of New York, 193 AD2d 874, 875).

The pipeline construction adjacent to the Activities Building had been ongoing for about one year before Claimant's fall. From the entrance gate to garbage cans near the bathroom, there was yellow caution tape placed to warn of the potential dangers of the work area. The State clearly had notice of the dangers posed by this ongoing construction.

It was also well-established that Claimant was required to follow a direct order from the correction officer. Inmates would not otherwise be allowed in the construction area, and in fact it would be a violation of the rules of the yard for an inmate to be in an area marked off with caution tape.

Claimant's description of how he fell and was injured was undisputed at trial. However, his testimony was confounded by other facts.

Claimant testified he slipped in an area with dug up dirt,(10) on mud. Yet the testimony from the correction officer who went to Claimant's assistance, found him lying in a grassy area behind the bathroom approximately 40 feet from the end of the pavement. There was no mud in the vicinity where Claimant was found. Lt. Bunnell could find no apparent explanation for Claimant's fall and was concerned about a possible assault, although, after investigating he did not uncover any foul play. The significant distance from the edge of the pavement where Claimant was found is incongruent with Claimant's testimony that he slipped after taking around four steps off of the pavement - even factoring in the fact that he rolled a couple of times after he fell. Moreover, Claimant's description of the correction officer who directed him to walk through the construction area most resembled, by all accounts out of the four officers on duty that morning, Officer Stanton. Officer Stanton credibly denied ever giving such an order. Although Officer Stanton acknowledged on cross-examination that someone else could have given Claimant that order, there was simply no one else even potentially identified and present at that location that morning who fit Claimant's description of the officer.

Although clearly Claimant fell and was seriously injured, it is his burden to establish that his injuries were caused by Defendant's negligence. The proof presented did not establish the State's negligence or liability for Claimant's injuries.

Accordingly, the claim is DISMISSED. LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.

August 30, 2010

Syracuse, New York

DIANE L. FITZPATRICK

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. He was a sergeant at the time of the incident.

2. Exhibit F. To facilitate the Court understanding the diagram (Exhibit F) Exhibit G, an indexed "key plot plan" was admitted into evidence by stipulation.

3. Identified as #43 on Exhibits F & G.

4. Exhibit F, Building 24.

5. Neither of these inmates testified.

6. Exhibit C.

7. Number 8 on Exhibit F.

8. The officers' depositions were taken the day before trial.

9. Exhibit H.

10. Trial Transcript, page 40.