The New York Court of Appeals recently extended the scope of New York labor law in an interesting decision titled Runner v. New York Stock Exchange.

This action was commenced in Federal Court by an electrician, Victor Runner, to recover damages for injuries he sustained while engaged in a major rehabilitation project at the New York Stock Exchange. The accident occurred as plaintiff and his co-workers were attempting to move a large reel of cable, weighing in excess of 800 pounds, from one part of the building complex to another. The cable reel needed to be moved down a short flight of stairs, but no hoisting device was provided for the workers’ use. Accordingly, plaintiff’s supervisor directed his crew to use a rope to restrain the reel as it was rolled down the steps.

At the foreman’s direction, the rope was affixed to the reel and wound several times around a pipe, which was placed behind a door jamb in order to serve as a brake. Plaintiff and two co-workers stood behind the pipe, holding the free end of the rope. After two other co-workers moved the reel to the stairway, the reel descended quickly. Plaintiff was dragged forward toward the pipe and his right hand was crushed between the pipe and rope. As a result of the accident, four fingers of plaintiff’s right hand were severed, and plaintiff fractured his right thumb and two fingers on his left hand.

Plaintiff’s Complaint alleged, inter alia, violations of Labor Law § 240(1) on the part of the owner of the Stock Exchange facility and the general contractor for the project. Labor Law § 240(1), commonly referred to as the “scaffold law,” requires that all contractors, owners, and their agents furnish or erect scaffolding, hoists, ladders, ropes, etc., to give proper protection from “elevation-related risks” to a person employed in the erection, demolition, or repairing of a building. Courts generally construe section 240(1) as liberally as possible to accomplish the legislative intent to protect workers against the “special hazards” that arise when either the worksite is elevated or is positioned below the level where materials or load is hoisted or secured. Although liberally construed, section 240(1) only allows recovery against “special hazards” from elevation-related risks, such as falling from a height (known as the “falling man hazard”), or being struck by a falling object being improperly hoisted or inadequately secured (known as the “falling object hazard”). The duty imposed by § 240(1) is nondelegable and an owner or contractor who breaches this duty may be held liable regardless of whether it has actually exercised supervision or control over the work. Further, the contributory negligence of plaintiff is no defense to claims under § 240(1). 

At trial, defendants argued that because plaintiff neither fell, nor was struck by a falling object, Labor Law § 240(1) did not apply. The jury agreed and returned a verdict in favor of the defendants. The District Court, however, set the verdict aside and concluded that Labor Law § 240(1) had been violated, as a matter of law, because 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 the failure to do so had been a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s injury.
On appeal, the Second Circuit held that the question of whether the facts give rise to Labor Law § 240(1) liability was a question most appropriately addressed to the New York Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals accepted the case for review and found that Labor Law § 240(1) applied.
The Court of Appeals reasoned that application of § 240(1) does not depend 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.” Thus, the Court found that Labor Law § 240 (1) applies to “those types of accidents in which the scaffold, hoist, stay, ladder 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.” Under the circumstances of this case, the Court found that plaintiff was not provided with an adequate safety device and that his injury flowed “directly from the application of the force of gravity to the object;” thus, it agreed with the District Court that Labor Law § 240(1) applied.
For additional information regarding Labor Law § 240(1) or to discuss procedures that you can implement to minimize lawsuits like this, please contact Christopher Renzulli or John V. Tait.