June 21, 2017
Labor Law 240: Weitzel v. State of New York (N.Y. Sup. Ct., Erie Co.)
by Richard C. Brister, Esq. In Weitzel, plaintiff was allegedly injured in the course of his employment at a highway construction project to renovate a bridge on the Thruway in Hamburg, New York. The construction area was contained within a heavy-duty tarp system, or containment area. On the date of the accident, plaintiff allegedly walked into the containment area wearing a safety harness, but once inside the containment area and hidden from view, removed the safety harness before climbing to a height (i.e., onto a 2’ aluminum plank placed between the bridge pier and the wing of a v-deck truck set up under the bridge), and then began work blasting the bridge framework. It was allegedly during this blasting work performed without a safety harness that plaintiff fell approximately 15 feet and sustained injuries. Plaintiff’s motion alleged the plank from which he fell was not set up properly because it was placed over a tarp and was not properly tied off. Plaintiff also alleged defendants failed to provide safety railings on both sides of the plank as required by the Labor Law. In opposition, defendants argued that plaintiff himself placed the plank on the tarp and tied it off. Defendants also argued that if plaintiff had worn his safety harness and used available bridge clamps, there were numerous tie-off points available. Defendants also provided expert and testimonial evidence that railings along the sides of the plank would have rendered the work practically impossible and more dangerous. Defendants also argued that plaintiff’s conduct in removing the safety harness was the sole proximate cause of the accident, and that plaintiff was a recalcitrant worker because he removed the safety harness without explanation and despite being told numerous times to wear it. Defendants argued that the court must take defendants’ evidence as true and indulge all reasonable inferences in their favor as non-movants. On January 12, 2017, the Court denied plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment under Labor Law section 240. The Court found issues of fact as to (1) whether plaintiff’s conduct in removing the safety harness was the sole proximate cause of the accident, and (2) whether plaintiff was a recalcitrant worker.
Labor Law: Court of Appeals Latest Attempt to Rein in Section 240(1) Liability
by Richard A. Galbo, Esq. On March 30, 2017, the Court of Appeals issued a 4-3 decision in O’Brien v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 02466, 2017 WL 1166795. Considering the three new Judges appointed to the Court in the last year, and despite a strident dissent by Judge Rivera, this decision may reflect a significant shift under section 240 of the New York Labor Law. The decision could have the effect of limiting liability under section 240, or at the very least curtailing summary judgment awards. The plaintiff was working at ground level on a rainy day. At the time of the accident, he was heading to his employer’s shanty to get his rain jacket. To do so, he used a temporary exterior metal staircase (also referred to as a temporary scaffold), which was wet due to rain. As the plaintiff stepped off the tread of the top step, his foot slipped and he fell down the stairs, sustaining injury. He was unable to prevent the fall because his hand slipped off the rail, which was also wet. Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment included an expert affidavit opining that (1) the staircase was “not in compliance with good and accepted standards of construction site safety and practice” because the stairs were “smaller, narrower and steeper than typical stairs,” making it difficult to maintain proper footing; (2) the stairs showed signs of wear; and (3) the anti-slip measures (small protruding nubs) were inadequate as they afforded limited slip protection and were otherwise worn. The defendants countered with their own expert who opined that (1) the stairs were “designed and manufactured so as to provide traction acceptable within industry standards and practice in times of inclement weather”; (2) the use of perforated holes to allow water to pass and raised nubs to provide traction were sufficient anti-slip measures; (3) the tread depth met good and acceptable construction industry standards; and (4) there was no evidence the treads were worn. The trial Court found issues of fact under section 240(1). While the Appellate Division acknowledged the conflicting expert opinions, it found the plaintiff entitled to summary judgment because the plaintiff fell, such that the staircase as a safety device therefore either malfunctioned or was inadequate to protect the plaintiff against the risk of falling. The Appellate Division granted leave to appeal, asking the Court of Appeals to review its decision granting summary judgment to the plaintiff on his section 240(1) claim. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the conflicting expert opinions raised an issue of fact as to whether the staircase provided adequate protection. The Court went on to hold that to the extent the Appellate Division’s opinion can be read to say a statutory violation occurred merely because the plaintiff fell down the stairs, this does not provide an accurate statement of the law. However, this is precisely the way courts have interpreted section 240 – i.e., rarely allowing a jury to decide whether a safety device was inadequate, and considering a plaintiff’s injury prima facie evidence of inadequacy. As such, for the dissenting Judges, liability was undisputed because the stairway is a safety device that failed to adequately protect the plaintiff from the risk of slipping and that failure was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. However, the Court’s majority now disputes this interpretation of section 240, and states that a presumption that a device was not good enough to provide proper protection is only valid in cases where the scaffold or ladder collapses or malfunctions for no apparent reason. Where this is not the case, then liability under section 240 will become an issue of fact for the jury and will be subject to the jury weighing competing expert opinions regarding the adequacy of the safety device to afford proper protection, even where the plaintiff is injured using the device in its intended manner. The Court leaves for future interpretation what factors a jury will be allowed to consider as “proper protection” by stating that compliance with industry standards would not, in itself, establish the adequacy of a safety device under section 240. The Court also read the defendants’ expert opinion as stating more than compliance with industry standards but did not elaborate on the “more,” leaving the question of what proof will be sufficient to defeat summary judgment and place the matter before a jury, as well as the question of what will be sufficient evidence of proper protection to sustain a finding of no liability.
While trial will remain all-or-nothing, without a liability finding before trial more cases are likely to settle for sums less than under the damage-only regime. Also, subjecting liability to expert proof will require the introduction of all of the facts and circumstances of the accident into trial, and even though the plaintiff’s culpable conduct will not be a defense, the plaintiff’s conduct could in any event influence the jury’s liability finding and/or damage assessment. This decision represents the most significant jurisprudential development under the Labor Law since the introduction of the defenses of “recalcitrant worker” and “sole proximate cause.” It is surely a favorable development for construction industry defendants – a fact not lost on the three dissenting Judges who argue at length that the decision misapprehends the statute’s legislative intent to protect workers under a strict liability standard that allows for a liability determination without reference to industry custom or practice.
The decision appears to rewrite the rules for the courts by curtailing the circumstance in which summary judgment is granted, putting plaintiffs to their proof before a jury and allowing a battle of experts to decide liability, thereby relieving some of the strain of strict liability on defendants.
Labor Law 240: Smith v. Burns (N.Y. Sup. Ct., Broome Co.)
by Richard C. Brister, Esq. In Smith, plaintiff was allegedly injured in the course of his employment at a project to build a two-level deck at a new restaurant being constructed in Binghamton, New York. On the accident date, plaintiff was allegedly using an 8’ stepladder to install a support post under the deck when the ladder collapsed, causing plaintiff to fall and sustain injuries. Plaintiff’s motion alleged he was provided the 8’ stepladder and that his accident was caused by the defective condition of the ladder and the way it was set up under the deck. In opposition, defendants submitted evidence that plaintiff was actually provided a 12’ stepladder that had on three prior occasions been successfully secured under the deck for similar work, and that plaintiff actually accessed that 12’ stepladder just prior to the accident, but that plaintiff ultimately disregarded the 12’ ladder and retrieved the 8’ ladder to use instead. Defendants argued that plaintiff’s motion ignored the the provision and condition of the 12’ ladder, and that the court must take defendants’ evidence as true and indulge all reasonable inferences in their favor as non-movants. On April 10, 2017, the Court denied plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment under Labor Law section 240. The Court found issues of fact as to (1) which ladder the plaintiff was given to use, and (2) whether plaintiff’s conduct (i.e., in retrieving the unsafe 8’ ladder for his use where a safe 12’ ladder had been immediately available to him) was the sole proximate cause of the accident. The Court also denied plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on his claims for common law negligence and for violation of Labor Law sections 241(6) and 200, and denied plaintiff’s wife’s derivative claim.