David Adams reports in the latest issue of Labor Law Pointers on a Jan. 27 scaffold law court decision that may prove to be very significant. The decision is from the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, Second Department, which encompasses Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Long Island, and areas north to Orange County.
The injured worker was using a six-foot-tall A-frame ladder on a construction project. The ladder was apparently in good condition, as he had performed the same tasks with the same ladder in four rooms before the accident. Pieces of sheetrock were stacked on the floor in the fifth room, preventing him from placing the ladder under the location where he needed to work. Instead, he placed the ladder three or four feet to the left of the location. It was on level ground and did not move or shake as he climbed to the third rung. He leaned to the right to do his work, whereupon the ladder tipped over. The court’s opinion does not describe his injuries.
The worker and his spouse sued the project owner and the general contractor, claiming violations of New York Labor Law Sections 200, 240(1) and 241(6). The trial court ruled in favor of the defendants, and the worker appealed. The Second Department upheld the trial court’s ruling, saying, “(Defendants’) submissions demonstrated, prima facie, that the injured plaintiff improperly positioned and misused the ladder, which was the sole proximate cause of his injuries … (S)ince the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the injured plaintiff's injuries were proximately caused by a violation of Labor Law § 240(1), the Supreme Court properly (ruled against them).”
I’ll let David describe the import of this decision:
Why is this important you may ask? The answer is simple; this is the first time I have seen a court, any court, award Summary Judgment to a defendant when the plaintiff fell because a ladder tipped, shook, shimmied or slipped. They did so specifically because it was the plaintiff who placed the ladder. In countless decisions, the courts have held that when a ladder is improperly placed, even when placed by the plaintiff, that the improper placement is a violation of the statute and thus a proximate cause, precluding any other proximate cause from being the sole proximate cause of the plaintiff’s fall and subsequent injury. Without the ability to have the plaintiff’s actions in placing and misusing the ladder be the sole proximate cause, the defendant is without the ability to defend the 240(1) claim. …
While we do not expect the Second’s view of the sole proximate cause defense in ladder placement cases to make its way across the state quickly, or even make the very short trip to the First Department quickly, we are ever hopeful that this will make its way to the Court of Appeals.
Some of you may recall that I taught a continuing education course two years ago titled Absolute Liability: New York’s Scaffold Law and the Courts. With the help of several back issues of Labor Law Pointers, I was able to cite in the course several court decisions that held the owner and general contractor liable when the injured worker placed a ladder himself. If the Second Department’s decision in this new case passes muster with the Court of Appeals, owners and contractors’ ability to successfully defend scaffold law suits will greatly improve. Stay tuned.