The 39-foot, 1,300-pound rail fell only 12-16 inches onto plaintiff’s right leg. It occurred when the plaintiff and his coworkers were using rail hooks to move the rail on top of another rail at the Steinway subway station in Queens. Upon the callman’s signal, the plaintiff’s coworkers began lifting the rail off the ground, but the plaintiff’s hooks were not in place and he was not ready to begin lifting. This allegedly caused the team to lose control of the rail and resulted in the rail falling. Under this scenario, there is an issue of fact whether Labor Law 240(1) applies, holds the Second Department in Gutman v. City of New York, 2010 WL 4678914 (November 16, 2010).
The defendants contended that the 12-16 inch height differential was insufficient to implicate the special protections afforded by the Labor Law. The Court disagreed, writing: the elevation differential here involved cannot be viewed as de minimis, particularly given the weight of the object and the amount of force it was capable of generating, even over the course of a relatively short descent. The court denied summary judgment to both the defendant and the plaintiff holding that there was a question whether the rail fell because of the absence or inadequacy of a safety device of the kind enumerated in the statute.
Interestingly, the court relies heavily upon what, as far as Labor Law 240(1) goes, is one of the most preeminent and oft-cited Court of Appeals decisions in years Runner v. New York Stock Exchange, Inc., 13 N.Y.3d 599, 895 N.Y.S.2d 279, 922 N.E.2d 865 (2009). In Runner, the court held that the Labor Law applies even in situations where the object does not fall on the worker- the critical question is whether the harm flows directly from the application of the force of gravity to the object.
The key language in Runner seems to be this: The breadth of the statute’s protection has, however, been construed to be less wide than its text would indicate. As is here relevant, it is generally agreed that the purpose of the strict liability statute is to protect construction workers not from routine workplace risks, but from the pronounced risks arising from construction work site elevation differentials, and, accordingly, that there will be no liability under the statute unless the injury producing accident is attributable to the latter sort of risk.
In these days of insurance companies lobbying for a weakening of the protections the Labor Law provides, it is heartening to see the Court of Appeals strengthen the law and lower courts apply the law to numerous situations. The decision in Gutman v. The City of New York may have gone differently had Runner not been decided as it was.
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