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STATE RULED LIABLE FOR REPAIRMAN'S FALL THROUGH TWO MANHOLES

It was bad enough when Harold J. Denneen fell through an open manhole.

It got worse fast when he fell through a second one, this time suffering serious arm and shoulder injuries.

Then the state said it was all his fault.

Not so, a state judge in Buffalo recently ruled, and now New York State is going to have to compensate Denneen.

As service manager for Applied Technical Services, Denneen went to repair the heating system at the State Armory on Masten Avenue in Buffalo in December 1995. At the time, there was three feet of snow on the ground.

As he trudged along to reach the back of the building, Denneen went feetfirst into a manhole that was missing its cover. His co-worker helped him out.

Denneen, who had been to the site a dozen or so times before, was unhurt. Moments later, he found himself falling through a second manhole, also missing its 80-pound cover.

After the accident, Denneen sued the state. But New York, through the office of Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco, argued that the state was not to blame.

"It is (the state's) position that, after he (Denneen) fell into the first manhole, which was buried by three feet of snow, he assumed the risk that there may be another manhole buried in the snow," State Court of Claims Judge Edgar C. NeMoyer recently wrote.

NeMoyer said "it does not follow" that because one manhole is uncovered there must be other uncovered ones nearby.

He found the state liable for the injuries Denneen suffered.

Michael H. Ranzenhofer, Denneen's attorney, said that his client's biceps were ripped off the bone and he is still being treated more than two years after the accident.

"The state, as a landowner, is subject to the same rules regarding maintaining premises as applied to ordinary citizens," the judge said in his decision.

The matter now goes to trial to determine how much Denneen is owed.

The judge dismissed any notion that children were able to take off the heavy covers, which were located in areas secured with barbed-wire fencing.

NeMoyer said the state's "meager inspection practices" of checking the area just twice a year "did not satisfy its duty to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition."

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