A divided New York State Court of Appeals ruled 4-3 that New York’s “scaffold law” does not automatically make employers liable for injuries their workers suffer an on-the-job fall. The state’s highest court reversed the lower court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of a crane operator who fell down a temporary steel staircase at the World Trade Center Freedom Tower construction project in 2010.
On a rainy day in July 2010, the worker attempted to descend a temporary steel staircase at what is now known as One World Trade Center. The installed staircase, also referred to as a temporary scaffold, was wet due to exposure to the elements. The worker’s foot slipped off the tread at the top step and he fell down the stairs, sustaining injuries. The worker claimed that his hand was on the handrail, but he was unable to hold on because the handrail was wet. The lower court found that the owner and general contractor of the project were liable for the injuries sustained from the fall due to inadequate safety procedures, mainly a failure to have an anti-slip technology, and thus awarded summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff.
The Court’s analysis centered around State Labor Law’s §240(1) and § 241 which are commonly referred to New York’s “scaffold laws.” The laws hold employers responsible for assuring proper safety procedures and devices are in place to protect their workers from falls or falling objects in the workplace. The ultimate question in their analysis was whether the law was meant to address just the failure to have safety devices, or should the court also assess whether the safety devices were adequate. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore in her opinion wrote that the case did not involve the absence of a safety device. Instead, it involved the question of whether the stairs were safe for allowing workers to move through the worksite.
The dissenters, including Judge Jenny Rivera, stated that the majority had a “fundamental misunderstanding” about the purpose of the scaffold law. In Judge Rivera’s opinion, the ultimate responsibility for safety practices falls on the property owner and general contractor. Therefore, the defendants should not be able to bring in additional considerations such as whether the stairs met industry safety standards. In her opinion, because the defendants failed to provide an adequate safety device to prevent the fall, they are statutorily liable.
The majority decided that the court should hear the expert’s opinions as to the adequacy of the device at trial. The court notably stated, that just because a worker falls on a job at a construction site does not necessarily establish a violation of Labor Law § 241. Instead, the adequacy of devices should be determined at trial and not at the summary judgment stage of the case. The case could signal a major change to the 132-year-old scaffold law which has been cited by businesses for increasing the costs of construction projects in New York state.
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