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Court News Ohio

Court of Claims: Prison at Fault for Inmate’s Severed Fingers While on Kitchen Duty

Paul Johnson v. Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Case No. 2012-08907

An inmate who admittedly was not trained on the commercial slicer he was using when he took off the tips of two fingers is partly responsible for his injuries and the state prison system will have to pay for the majority of his damages, an Ohio Court of Claims magistrate ruled.

Magistrate Anderson M. Renick ruled Tuesday that Allen Correctional Institute inmate Paul Johnson was 40 percent responsible for the accident that severed two finger tips when he and another inmate on kitchen duty were making cheese sandwiches. A food service contractor hired by the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) to supervise the kitchen was faulted for inadequately overseeing the prisoners as they worked, and the court determined DRC was ultimately responsible.

Johnson’s complaint filed in the Court of Claims was split into two matters, one determining the liability of the department, and the other the extent of his damages. Renick only ruled on liability at this time, and the parties have 14 days to appeal the decision.

Johnson was labeled a “utility worker” in the institution’s kitchen where he performed various duties under the supervision of the food service coordinators. In August 2012, inmate Joseph Samber was operating  an electric slicer cutting large blocks of cheese and Johnson was filling large pans with the sliced cheese to make sandwiches. The two were operating under the supervision of Theresa Fetters, a contract employee who served in place of other workers when they were on leave. Fetters had been on the job a month when the accident occurred and had not received specific training on how to supervise inmates using the slicer.

Johnson and Samber testified that Samber and Fetters had a verbal altercation and she removed him from the slicer. They said Fetters directed Johnson to take over on the slicer, even after Samber told her Johnson was not trained to use it. Samber demonstrated to Johnson how the machine works and showed him how to put the safety guards in place that protect the operator’s hands from the blades. After cutting a few blocks of cheese, Johnson sliced off the tips of two fingers. Correctional Officer Governor  Thompson was overseeing the kitchen when the accident occurred. He took Johnson to the prison infirmary and had Samber put the two finger tips in a cup of ice in an attempt to save them.

Thompson testified that Johnson told him he could blame no one but himself for the accident because he was using a machine he was not authorized to use. Fetters testified that she did not know what assignments Johnson was given or if he had been trained to use the slicer. She indicated that if Johnson would have put the safety guard down as instructed his fingers would not have  made contact with the blade.

Renick ruled there was no dispute that Fetters was acting on the state’s behalf and has the responsibility of assuring the inmates followed safety rules.

“Fetters acknowledged that she observed (Johnson) using the slicer without the pivoting guard and that the proper use of the guard would have protected against the injury plaintiff sustained,” he wrote. “Based upon the evidence, the court finds that Fetters allowed plaintiff to operate the slicer in a hazardous manner and that such operation created a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of  harm  to the plaintiff.”

Renick also found Johnson was aware of the potential risk and that he was not authorized to use the slicer without proper training. Further, he admitted Samber showed him how to properly use it and was warned to keep his hands away from the blade. “By placing his hand near the blade while the slicer was operating, (Johnson) failed to use reasonable care to ensure his own safety,” Renick concluded.

Renick cited Ohio’s comparative fault statute, R.C. 2315.33, and found Johnson was 40 percent at fault for the accident. If a damage award is granted, it will be reduced by 40 percent to reflect Johnson’s negligence.

The Court of Claims is given original jurisdiction to hear and determine all civil actions filed against the state of Ohio and its agencies.

To access information on other cases visit the Court of Claims website.

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