Court of Appeals Overrules Labor Law §240(1) Dismissal
In Strangio v. Stevenson Environmental Services, Inc., New York’s highest court recently modified a decision by the Fourth Department analyzing Labor Law §240(1), specifically relating to the circumstances under which the strict liability associated with that statute attaches. It held that given the existence of issues of fact, the defendants should not have obtained summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s Labor Law §240(1) claims.
The facts relevant to the Labor Law §240 analysis are that the plaintiff sustained injuries when he was struck in the face by the handle of a hand-operated hoisting mechanism while he was raising a scaffold. The appeal was in response to the Fourth Department’s affirmation of parts of the trial court’s ruling that granted defendant’s summary judgment motions dismissing plaintiff’s Labor Law §240(1) claims.
In its analysis, the Fourth Department focused on the fact that the intent of Labor Law §240(1) was to protect workers from changes in elevation common on construction sites. Not every worker who falls at a construction site, and not every object that falls on a worker, gives rise to the extraordinary protections of New York Labor Law §240(1). Rather, under the Court of Appeals’ 2001 decision in Narducci v. Manhasset Bay Association, liability is contingent upon the existence of a hazard contemplated in N.Y. Lab. Law §240(1) and the failure to use, or the inadequacy of, a safety device of the kind enumerated therein.
In Narducci, the Court of Appeals explained:
Labor Law §240(1) applies to both “falling worker” and “falling object” cases. With respect to falling objects, Labor Law §240(1) applies where the falling of an object is related to “a significant risk inherent in … the relative elevation … at which materials or loads must be positioned or secured.” Thus, for section 240(1) to apply, a plaintiff must show more than an object fell causing injury to a worker. A plaintiff must show that the object fell, while being hoisted or secured, because of the absence or inadequacy of a safety device of the kind
enumerated in the statute.”
In addition, the fact that an injured plaintiff may have been working at an elevation when the object fell is of no moment in a “falling object” case, because a different type of hazard is involved. Working at an elevation does not increase the risk of being hit by an improperly hoisted load of materials from above. The hazard posed by working at an elevation is that, in the absence of adequate safety devices (e.g., scaffolds, ladders), a worker might be injured in a fall. By contrast, falling objects are associated with the failure to use a different type of safety device (e.g., ropes, pulleys, irons) also enumerated in the statute. Because the different risks arise from different construction practices, the hazard from one type of activity cannot be “transferred” to create liability for a different type of accident.
New York courts have recognized that when a plaintiff falls from a scaffold because the defendants failed to furnish or erect the necessary safety equipment for the performance of the work plaintiff was required to do, this falls within Labor Law §240. However, if a worker stands on a scaffold to install a light fixture and said fixture falls on him, this situation would not fall within the scope of Labor Law §240 if the required safety equipment was present and adequate.
In affirming the dismissal of Plaintiff’s §240(1) claims in Strangio, the Fourth Department held that the injury resulted neither from a “falling from height” or from a “falling object,” and thus did not involve an elevation-related risk as contemplated by the statute (presumably because the hoist and the scaffold were at approximately the same elevation). The Appellate Division found that the proper inquiry under Labor Law §240(1) analysis is whether “the scaffold . . . or other protective device proved inadequate to shield the injured worker from harm directly flowing from the application of the force of gravity to an object or person.” (Emphasis in original)
The Appellate Division noted that the statute requires that a protective device (here, a
scaffold), adequately shield workers from falling to the ground or sustaining other injuries as a result of the unchecked descent of the scaffold. The Appellate Division further found that the force of gravity acting upon a hoisting mechanism is insufficient to establish a valid Labor Law §240(1). The Appellate Division noted that the fact that “an accident is ‘connected in some tangential way with the effects of gravity’ is insufficient to bring the injured worker within the protection of Labor Law §240.”
There was a dissenting opinion in Strangio. The dissent viewed the facts as presenting a “falling object” case. It noted that the defendant’s expert witness conceded that the gear lock dog device in the cranking mechanism “was designed to prevent the scaffold from falling to the ground.” Plaintiff’s expert opined that the injury was caused by a malfunction of the device, which resulted in “an unexpected fall of the scaffold platform and an uncontrolled backward movement of the crank handle due to a defect in the cranking mechanism.” Thus, according to the dissent, there is no question that ‘the harm to plaintiff was the direct consequence of the application of the force of gravity to the [cranking mechanism].’
On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the record presented triable issues of fact of whether defendants provided proper protection under Labor Law §240(1). The Court did not discuss or modify controlling case law and the decision was silent regarding what types of devices were provided and what types would be required in order for the defendants to prevail upon their summary judgment motion. The decision highlights the fact specific nature in which Labor Law §240(1) cases are handled and the need to build a record which eliminates elevation from the accident equation.
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