Court of Appeals Broadens Construction Worker Safety Statute to Apply Where Worker Neither Fell Nor Was Struck By Falling Object

There is a line of cases requiring that a construction worker either fall or be struck by a falling object in order for there to be considered a gravity-related risk so as to invoke the absolute liability provisions of Labor Law 240(1) (New Yorks Scaffold Law). No more. In Runner v. New York Stock Exchange, Inc., — N.E.2d —-, 2009 WL 4840213 (decided December 17, 2009), the worker did not fall. Nor was he struck by a falling object. Instead,the worker was injured because a makeshift counterweight system proved insufficient to control the force gravity exerted upon an 800-pound reel of wire the workers were moving down a set of stairs.

The Court of Appeals held that because the injuries were the direct consequence of the force of gravity to the reel and were directly attributable to a risk posed by a physically significant elevation differential, Labor Law 240(1) (New Yorks Scaffold Law) applies. In Runner, the worker sustained serious and permanent injuries to both of his hands in connection with the installation of an Uninterruptible Power System on defendant New York Stock Exchange’s premises.

The court described the undisputed manner in which the accident occurred: The plaintiff and several co-workers had been directed to move a large reel of wire, weighing some 800 pounds, down a set of about four stairs. To prevent the reel from rolling freely down the flight and causing damage, the workers were instructed to tie one end of a ten-foot length of rope to the reel and then to wrap the rope around a metal bar placed horizontally across a door jamb on the same level as the reel. The loose end of the rope was then held by plaintiff and two co-workers while two other co-workers began to push the reel down the stairs. As the reel descended, it pulled plaintiff and his fellow workers, who were essentially acting as counterweights, toward the metal bar.

The reel’s descent could not be controlled, and plaintiff was drawn horizontally into the bar, injuring his hands as they jammed against it. Experts testified that a pulley or hoist should have been used to move the reel safely down the stairs and that the jerry-rigged device actually employed had not been adequate to that task. The case came to the Court of Appeals via certified questions from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Second Circuit. The trial in U.S. District Court resulted in a jury verdict in favor of the defendants on the basis that plaintiffs injuries were not attributable to a gravity-related risk.

The jury verdict was set aside by the trial court which found, as a matter of law, that the movement of the reel down the stairs presented a gravity-related risk; that an adequate safety device had not been used to manage the risk; and that that failure had been a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s injury.

The Second Circuit certified the following questions: I. Where a worker who is serving as a counterweight on a makeshift pulley is dragged into the pulley mechanism after a heavy object on the other side of a pulley rapidly descends a small set of stairs, causing an injury to plaintiff’s hand, is the injury (a) an elevation related injury, and (b) directly caused by the effects of gravity, such that section 240(1) of New York’s Labor Law applies? II. If an injury stems from neither a falling worker nor a falling object that strikes a plaintiff, does liability exist under section 240(1) of New York’s Labor Law? Labor Law 240(1) establishes a statutory duty for contractors and owners to provide adequate safety devices for their workers.

The failure to provide safety devices constitutes a per se violation of the statute and subjects owners and contractors to absolute liability, as a matter of law, for any injuries that result from such failure. However, if adequate safety devices are provided and the worker either chooses not to use them or misuses them, then there is no liability under Labor Law 240(1) because the workers conduct is considered to be the sole proximate cause of the accident.

The key to the Court of Appeals decision in Runner is its recasting of the first certified question as follows: [W]e think the dispositive inquiry framed by our cases does not depend upon the precise characterization of the device employed or upon whether the injury resulted from a fall, either of the worker or of an object upon the worker. Rather, the single decisive question is whether plaintiff’s injuries were the direct consequence of a failure to provide adequate protection against a risk arising from a physically significant elevation differential. The Court of Appeals answered the first certified question, as recast, in the affirmative, and it left the second certified question unanswered, as unnecessary.

The personal injury lawyers at Levine & Slavit have decades of experience handling personal injury claims, including for workers injured at construction sites. For 50 years spanning 3 generations, we have obtained results for satisfied clients. Contact the personal injury lawyers at Levine & Slavit for their help. We have offices in Manhattan and Long Island, handling cases in New York City, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and surrounding areas. To learn more, watch our videos.

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