New York's (in)famous scaffold law exempts owners of one- and two-family dwellings. Homeowners don't have to worry about absolute liability, right?
Well, it depends. A New York appellate court refused to apply it to one homeowner last week.
A worker died during the construction of a one-family home in New York City. The homeowner also happened to be an officer of the general contractor who was building the home. He was an experienced construction worker. The deceased worker was an employee of an electrical contractor acting as a subcontractor on the project. The homeowner provided the workers with a 14-foot ladder that he built himself out of "two-inch by four-inch pieces of wood connected by nails and screws." As the subcontractor's employee was coming down the ladder with a heavy drill in hand, the ladder jerked and he fell.
The man's survivors sued the homeowner under New York State Labor Law Sections 240(1) and 241(6), which are collectively known as "the scaffold law." Both sections apply to all owners and contractors and their agents, "except owners of one and two-family dwellings who contract for but do not direct or control the work ..." The homeowner seized on this provision to claim he was exempt.
Neither the trial court nor the appellate court were buying it:
(T)he appellant's control of the work site exceeded that of the ordinary homeowner, since he was involved in the construction, assembled and placed the ladder where it was, and instructed the workers to use it for access to the second floor ... The appellant also performed some of the work at the site himself, coordinated the subcontractors, and was 8 to 10 feet away from the plaintiff's decedent at the time of the accident, performing work on the entrance door. Because of his involvement in and control of the work site, the appellant was not entitled to the homeowners' exception under Labor Law §§ 240(1) and 241(6) ...
Because, under New York court precedents, a ladder that suddenly moves is considered to have not provided proper protection to the worker, the court found that the homeowner had violated the scaffold law. Judgment for the plaintiffs.
This is sad case, but the decision is in line with earlier decisions. The courts have consistently found that a homeowner who may possibly have been directing or controlling the work does not get the exemption. I'm sure this will not be the last such case.