Claimant's attorney: Brian Chapin York, Esq.
Defendant's attorney: Hon. Andrew M. Cuomo Attorney General of the State of New York, By: Thomas G. Ramsay, Esq, Assistant Attorney General.
PHILIP J. PATTI, J.
Claimant, a former inmate at Groveland Correctional Facility, sustained serious personal injury on exiting a van owned by the Defendant and operated by Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) personnel on July 2, 1999. On that day Claimant, who was housed at the Groveland Annex (Annex), was one of four inmates who were to be seen at the infirmary located on the main campus of the facility. This required the inmates to be transported by van from the Annex to the main facility. DOCS regulations required the inmates to be handcuffed with the ubiquitous black box affixed over the cuffs and attached to a waist chain, as well as having shackles applied to their ankles.
Chad Diaz, an inmate at the time of the accident, testified that he was to be seen at the infirmary that morning and was in the van during the transport from the Annex to the main campus. The vehicle used on the day of the accident was a van with a front door, requiring the inmates to take two steps to gain access to the interior of the van and the bench seats.  Since the distances from the ground at the Annex up to the first step and then to the second step (the van floor) were not great, the inmates could manage them without removing the ankle shackles. Once inside the van, the inmates sat on a bench along the side of the interior for the brief trip to the infirmary.  When they arrived at the infirmary, the van was parked on a slight incline facing the facility. One inmate exited through the front door while Claimant, along with Mr. Diaz and the other inmate, were directed to the rear of the van to exit. According to both Mr. Diaz and Claimant, Correction Officers (COs) Alan Beaty and Allen Lynch escorted them from the Annex to the infirmary on the date of the accident. CO Lynch assisted the inmate exiting from the front of the van. CO Beaty opened the rear door of the van, at which there were no steps, and directed the remaining inmates to take a seat near the door while he removed the leg restraints. He then assisted the unnamed inmate down onto a plastic crate  and then to the ground.
According to a directive dated June 18, 1990 from Deputy Commissioner Glenn S. Goord (Exhibit 15), the use of a crate, in his opinion, was an appropriate "step" to be used as an aid to assist an inmate entering or exiting a DOCS's vehicle.
CO Beaty apparently performed the same procedure for Mr. Diaz, removing his leg restraints, assisting him onto the crate and then the ground. He then directed Claimant to be seated and removed his leg restraints. What occurred thereafter is the crux of Claimant's case and is in dispute.
According to Mr. Diaz, who had exited the van and was standing to the right some three to four feet from the rear of the van, Claimant walked to the doorway and, without the assistance provided to the other inmates by CO Beaty, stepped from the rear of the van down onto the crate, which was comparable in size to a milk crate. The crate had been placed under the rear Emergency Exit door by CO Beaty to act as an intermediate step for the inmates as they exited. As shown in Exhibits 10 (a) through (q), the area where he placed the crate sloped away from the rear of the van and the door from which Claimant and the other two inmates exited.  Those inmates had been assisted down by CO Beaty since their wrists were restrained by cuffs and a block (black box), which in turn were hooked to a waist chain. According to Mr. Diaz,  Claimant, who was the last to leave the van, was not given any assistance and, as he placed his foot down on the crate it tipped forward, then slid back and under the van, which caused Claimant's body to strike the exit as he fell, with his head and neck snapping back toward the interior of the vehicle. He then fell to the ground and at some point was assisted to his feet by CO Beaty. At no time did Mr. Diaz ever hear CO Beaty or anyone else say that Claimant had run out of the rear Emergency Exit of the van. Moreover, he was standing to the right of the van with an unobstructed view of the rear and stated that he did not see Claimant running out of the van.
Claimant's testimony was generally consistent with that of Mr. Diaz. His leg irons had been removed by CO Beaty prior to his exiting. However, since he was six feet tall and the rear door was approximately four feet high, he had to stoop or bend down in order to exit the van. When he did this, his hands were still cuffed, secured by the black box and attached to a waist chain. He stated that the van was parked on an incline at the infirmary and the crate had been placed below the rear bumper as he stepped down. As his foot came in contact with the crate it tipped forward and then moved back toward the van, causing him to fall backward, half in and half out of the van. His back and upper extremities were snapped back and his left elbow hit the bumper. As he lay on the ground, he was advised not to move, and eventually he was assisted to his feet and brought into the infirmary. He stated that at the time he tried to exit the van CO Beaty was attending to the other two inmates and did not assist him.
Claimant stated that he recalled CO Beaty assisting Mr. Diaz as he exited the van and assumed he had done the same for the other inmate. He estimated that he started to exit about 10 to 15 seconds after Mr. Diaz. He did acknowledge that he had been transported by van in the past and had exited from vans using a crate in the past without incident.
Claimant called Dr. Robert Sugarman who was offered as an expert in the field of Human Factors which is comprised of many disciplines, but chiefly the fields of applied experimental psychology and industrial engineering. The goal of Human Factors is to design systems that will be safe and comfortable to those using not just machines and other devices, but also a system that enhances safety for those using them. He stated that he did not have a specific degree in Human Factors as it was not offered as a distinct program at the time he completed his various courses of study. I accepted him as an expert in this field based not only on his educational background but also on his extensive experience in the field of Human Factors.
He opined that use of the rear door as an exit was unsafe as there was a front door that permitted the inmates to safely step down and out of the van. Exiting out of the rear door was less safe because it was only four feet in height, and as a result inmates were obliged to bend to exit rather than stand upright. In addition, he stated that exiting from the rear did not provide a suitable step down for anyone exiting while in restraints. Use of the front door was an easier, safer and available passage for the inmates. He was further of the opinion that using the crate as a step was unsafe since the top and base were the same size and that, to be safe, the base should be broader than the top and should be made from heavier material, giving it stability and diminishing the chances that it could slip or tip over.
Dr. Sugarman also pointed out that the crate used by CO Beaty in this instance was on a slight downward slope, was constructed of plastic (Exhibit 16), and can slip and tip, as occurred in this case. He also stated that, based on the measurements of the grade of the slope and the weight (2.5 lbs.) and dimensions of the crate which were provided to him, it would only take two pounds of horizontal force to cause the crate to move. He was of the opinion that even on a flat surface, a plastic milk crate of these dimensions and weight is unsafe to use as a step, even with assistance provided to the person exiting through the rear of the van. Consequently, he concluded that the use of the rear exit, the use of the crate and the lack of assistance in combination were substantial contributing factors in Claimant's fall and injury.
Dr. Sugarman admitted that he never visited the facility and never saw the van or the area where the accident occurred in person, but rather formed his opinions based upon (1) the photographs of the area; (2) a van similar to the one used on the day of the accident, and (3) the measurements made by Claimant's attorney and an assistant. He also stated that he was unaware of any standard which specifically prohibited the use of a crate as a step. In fact, he was aware of a DOCS directive that permitted the use of a crate as a step to aid inmates entering or exiting a vehicle (Exhibit 15). It was his ...