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State of New York 50 Percent Liable for Prisoner’s Injury Sustained from Table Saw

by Douglas Ankney

On January 31, 2019, a New York State Court of Claims found the state 50 percent liable for the injuries that prisoner Ralph Whedon sustained when operating a table saw at the Franklin Correctional Facility (FCF).

In August 2015, while Whedon was assigned to the work program at FCF’s carpentry shop, his supervisor, Keith Smith, gave him a work order to create a bulletin-board frame.

The task required Whedon to make a dado cut (a flat slot cut against the grain), and Smith directed him to use a table saw to make the cut. Whedon stated he used a “push stick” to push a 1x4 through the table saw when he “felt a terrible vibration and heard a noise.” He “continued to push through” because he feared the wood would kick back and “slap [him] in the face.” The push stick made contact with the blade and drew his hand forward, lacerating his thumb.

Whedon submitted a claim, alleging, inter alia, that the state’s agents were negligent in failing to instruct him on how to safely make the dado cut. At the liability trial on the claim, Whedon testified he had used the table saw only five times, that he had never before made a dado cut on a table saw and that Smith did not instruct him on how to make a dado cut.

Smith testified that he did not think Whedon needed much training on the table saw because Whedon had claimed to be an experienced carpenter. Smith also testified he had seen Whedon using the saw many times and that Whedon appeared comfortable doing so.

The Court of Claims observed that it “is settled law that when the State, through its correctional authorities, directs a prison inmate to participate in a work program ..., it owes the inmate a duty to provide ... instructions for the safe operation of such machinery and equipment,” citing Kandrach v. State of New York, 188 A.D.2d 910 (NY 3d Dept 1992).

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s manual requires prison employees to instruct prisoners in the “work to be performed under the employee’s direction” and “in the safe operation of equipment.” However, “when an inmate fails to use ordinary care and pursues a dangerous course of conduct, he must take some responsibility for his own negligence.”

The Court concluded that the state was liable because Smith breached his duty to properly train Whedon. However, Whedon contributed to his injury by failing to ask Smith for instruction and by continuing to push the wood through the saw after he heard a noise and felt the vibration.

Consequently, both the state and Whedon were each found 50 percent liable. The claim will be scheduled for trial on the issue of damages, unless it is settled. See: Whedon v. New York, NY Court of Claims, UID No. 2019-038-103, Claim No. 126971. 

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Related legal case

Whedon v. New York