In Alexander v. Hart, — N.Y.S.2d —-, 2009 WL 1955556, 2009 N.Y. Slip Op. 05716 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept., 2009) the plaintiff, a service technician, fell while working on a rooftop heating, ventilation and air conditioning unit at defendants’ fitness center on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in Franklin County. The defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s Labor Law 240(1) and 241(6) claims on the ground that these construction worker safety statutes do not apply on the grounds that
(1) the statutes do not apply to accidents that occur on an Indian reservation,
(2) since the tribe is the title owner of the land, the individual and corporate defendants are not owners within the meaning of the Labor Law statutes,
(3) the plaintiff was engaged in repair work that is not an activity covered by Labor Law 240(1),
(4) the plaintiffs work was not covered by plaintiffs Labor Law 241(6), and
(5) the plaintiffs actions in using an inadequate ladder and failing to use a safety harness that was in his van were the sole proximate cause of his accident.
Only the defendant’s fourth argument was accepted by the Third Department. The court found that jurisdiction was proper in this action inasmuch as the construction worker safety statutes and this action address commercial and tort matters between individual civil litigants and do not implicate the St. Regis Mohawk nation’s government or sovereign rights. It was noted that State courts do not violate an Indian nation’s sovereign right to self-government by exercising jurisdiction over disputes between private civil litigants on matters that have no bearing on the internal affairs of the tribal nation’s government. The court noted that plaintiff’s Labor Law causes of action are not barred merely because the accident occurred on an Indian reservation.
Congress has ceded the federal government’s jurisdiction over Indian matters to permit the New York State courts to exercise jurisdiction in civil actions and proceedings involving Indians just as it would any other civil actions and proceedings as defined by the laws of New York, unless a tribal law or custom applied. Because the defendants did not proffer any St. Regis Mohawk tribal law concerning liability for injured workers, the civil laws of New York applied to the action.
The court held that the individual and corporate defendants are owners within the meaning of the Labor Law statutes notwithstanding that the tribe is the title owner of the land. The court noted the existence of a document entitled Saint Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation Right to Use and Occupancy Deed, signed by defendant Fabian Hart, the prior possessor of the land, and the tribal council chiefs, under which Fabian Hart was granted full rights of use and occupancy to the land upon which the fitness center was built. Defendants paid for these property rights, paid to have the fitness center built and contracted with plaintiff’s employer for improvements to the fitness center’s HVAC. Fabian M. Hart, Inc. owned the business operated on the property, receiving the benefit of the improvements to the fitness center.
The court rejected the defendants characterization of the work as being routine maintenance, instead characterizing the work as the repairing of a structure covered by Labor Law 240(1). The court observed that the HVAC system was nonfunctional and in a serious state of disrepair, and the plaintiff was trying to restore the HVAC system to working order. The court did agree that the work was not a covered activity under Labor Law 241(6) inasmuch as the plaintiffs work did not involve construction, excavation or demolition work.
Lastly, the court rejected the defendants contention that plaintiff’s own actions were the sole proximate cause of his accident based upon plaintiff’s uncontroverted deposition testimony that the safety harness could not be properly used in this situation and that no ladder on the premises would have been adequate to reach the roof hatch.
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