New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
FUENTES v. STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2010-018-152, Claim No. 108732

Synopsis

Claimant has failed to establish that the State could have or should have reasonably foreseen a risk of injury to Claimant. The stool was not defective, the officers did not direct Claimant to sit down, there were other chairs available, and although Claimant suffered from a prior back or neck injury, he did not require or request assistance to sit down. The claim is DISMISSED.

Case information

UID: 2010-018-152
Claimant(s): MANNY FUENTES
Claimant short name: FUENTES
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 108732
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: DIANE L. FITZPATRICK
Claimant's attorney: LOUIS DeSORBO, ESQUIRE
Defendant's attorney: ANDREW M. CUOMO
Attorney General of the State of New York
By: Joseph F. Romani, Esquire
Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: December 14, 2010
City: Syracuse
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

This claim seeks damages from the State of New York for an incident that occurred on January 7, 2002, at a private medical office while Claimant was an inmate at Elmira Correctional Facility. This matter has been bifurcated and this Decision addresses liability only.

The events of January 7, 2002, were related during the trial by Claimant and the two correction officers who were transporting him on the day in question. The three witnesses recalled most of the details differently, and only the specifics of the events immediately preceding Claimant's fall were consistent. Also, admitted into evidence were the deposition transcripts of Robert J. Weiss, M.D.,(1) and Lisa Weiss.(2) Rusanne Billings testified at trial for the State. She was Dr. Weiss' secretary and had very little recollection of the day.

Claimant was an inmate at Elmira Correctional Facility and was scheduled for a medical appointment at the State University Medical Center (hereinafter University Hospital) in Syracuse on January 7, 2002. Two correction officers, Walter Sweeney, the senior officer, and Anthony Fusare, the driver of the vehicle, were assigned to transport Claimant and Inmate Kenneth Sprague that day. Claimant was scheduled for follow-up treatment for a neck and back injury at University Hospital which included a cortisone shot. After Claimant's appointment, Mr. Sprague had an afternoon appointment with Robert J. Weiss, M.D., a surgeon, at Community General Hospital. As required, Claimant was handcuffed and shackled for transport. Officer Sweeney said he helped him, as he does all inmates, in and out of the van. Claimant recalled having his cane that day, although, neither of the officers, nor Dr. Weiss or his nurse remembered it. Officer Sweeney was aware that Claimant had back or neck problems and some difficulty walking.

At University Hospital there is a holding cell and Mr. Sprague stayed there during Claimant's medical treatments. There is no holding cell at Community General Hospital and the officers are required to stay together with the inmates. Accordingly, all four men went into Dr. Weiss' waiting room, in the physicians' office building connected to the hospital. A diagram of Dr. Weiss' office was admitted into evidence.(3)

The recollections of the witnesses varied regarding the actions of themselves and each other in Dr. Weiss' office. Although memories fade, there was a significant lack of consistency among all of the witnesses. The Court finds the officers' and Claimant's testimony generally comported regarding the specifics of how Claimant fell that day.

After listening to the testimony, observing the witnesses, and reading the deposition transcripts, the Court finds the facts as follows:

After arriving at Dr. Weiss' office, the two officers and inmates sat in the waiting room. At some point, either a nurse or Dr. Weiss came and escorted them all back through a door into an open alcove/storage area because Dr. Weiss did not want them in the waiting room. In the alcove, there were not enough chairs for four people so the nurse brought a low stool with wheels over to the area. The two officers were standing and Mr. Sprague sat in a chair. Claimant attempted to sit down on the stool, without assistance, and the stool moved from under him causing him to fall. Officer Sweeney tried to grab him but was too late. The stool hit a shelving unit against the wall, causing the unit to break away from the wall and fall, spilling the books and papers onto Claimant. Officer Sweeney picked up the fallen items, including Claimant, and helped him sit down. Officer Fusare held the stool for Claimant. Thereafter, Officer Fusare and Mr. Sprague went to a treatment room. Dr. Weiss was nearby and expressed his concern to the nurse about the shelving unit. He never inquired about Claimant's well-being and offered no medical assistance.

Mrs. Weiss disclaimed any knowledge of Claimant or the shelf falling that day, testifying that she first learned about the incident from a pleading in a related action. Dr. Weiss testified he learned of the incident from his wife later on January 7, after the inmates and officers had left. Claimant received no medical treatment immediately after his fall. Upon returning to Elmira Correctional Facility, Claimant went to the infirmary where he was examined and given Tylenol. He had bruising on his back.

LAW

The State has the duty to protect an inmate in its custodial care and supervision from reasonably foreseeable risks of harm (Reid v State of New York, 61 AD3d 1063; see also Mochen v State of New York, 57 AD2d 719; Castiglione v State of New York, 25 AD2d 895). Yet, the State is not an insurer of an inmate's safety, it will only be found liable if an inmate's injury could have reasonably been foreseen and the State failed to prevent it (Bernard v State of New York, 34 AD3d 1065; Melendez v State of New York, 283 AD2d 729; Rosado v State of New York, 139 AD2d 851; Spadaro v State of New York, 38 Misc 2d 489, affd 28 AD2d 604). Negligence must be proven (Kowalski v State of New York, 7 AD2d 762).

In this case, the Court does not find that the State breached its duty to Claimant. The stool was not defective, the officers did not direct Claimant to sit down, there were other chairs available, and although Claimant suffered from a prior back or neck injury, he did not require or request assistance to sit down. Claimant has failed to establish that the State could have or should have reasonably foreseen a risk of injury to Claimant under these circumstances and failed in its duty to prevent it.

The claim is DISMISSED. LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.

December 14, 2010

Syracuse, New York

DIANE L. FITZPATRICK

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. Exhibit C.

2. Exhibit B.

3. Exhibit A.