New York Court Examines Scope of Scaffold Law in 2 Injury Cases

By | April 8, 2015

The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled on two injury cases on April 2, examining whether the injuries in those cases fit within the scope of the state’s Labor Law 240, popularly known as the Scaffold Law. Under New York’s Scaffold Law, property owners and contractors are liable for most “gravity-related” injuries to workers on construction sites.

One case involved a construction worker who was injured while installing insulation in the ceilings of a newly constructed apartment building development in the Village of Fredonia, New York, in 2006.

The court documents showed that the worker wore stilts that elevated his feet above the concrete floor in order for him to reach the 9- to 10-foot high ceiling. According to the plaintiff, the accident occurred when he stepped forward with one foot, while swinging a hammer tacker above his head to affix insulation between the ceiling rafters, and slipped on a thin patch of ice.

The testimony in the record varies with respect to how high the stilts elevated the plaintiff off the floor, according to court documents. The plaintiff claimed that the stilts raised him somewhere between 3 and 5 feet off the ground, while the plaintiff’s supervisor testified that the stilts elevated the plaintiff by only about 18 inches. The plaintiff’s coworker, who was performing the same task on stilts in the room with plaintiff, asserted that both he and the plaintiff had their stilts set at the lowest setting, which he stated was approximately 3 feet.

The testimony also differed on the circumstances leading up to the accident. The plaintiff testified at his deposition that, prior to falling, he was aware that ice and water had accumulated on parts of the floor, and he claimed to have so informed his supervisor. The plaintiff asserted that his supervisor instructed him to complete the installation despite the presence of ice. The supervisor, by contrast, testified that he — not the plaintiff — first noticed the ice, and that he directed the plaintiff not to insulate the ceiling above the icy area.

The high court ruled that the accident didn’t fall within the scope of the Scaffold Law. The court also stated that regardless of the type of safety device involved, liability arises under Labor Law § 240 (1) only where the plaintiff’s injuries are the “direct consequence” of an elevation-related risk, and not a separate and ordinary tripping or slipping hazard.

“Here, plaintiff’s accident was plainly caused by a separate hazard — ice — unrelated to any elevation risk,” the court stated. “Plaintiff testified that stilts were the appropriate device for the type of work that he was undertaking, given the height of this particular ceiling. Plaintiff’s testimony further established that it was the ice — not a deficiency or inadequacy of the stilts — that caused his fall.”

Commenting on stilts, the court further stated that, unlike ladders, stilts are not placed in a stationary position and expected to remain still to ensure their proper and safe use. Rather, stilts are intended to function as extensions of, and move with, the worker during performance of the designated task.

“Thus, the imposition of liability under section 240 (1) where a ladder slips due to an unsafe condition on the floor in the area where it is placed is distinguishable from the circumstances of plaintiff’s accident here,” the court stated. “In sum, plaintiff cannot recover under Labor Law § 240 (1) because his injuries resulted from a slip on ice, which — under these facts — is a separate hazard unrelated to the elevation risk that necessitated the provision of a safety device in the first instance.”

However, in a dissenting opinion, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman stated that he believes stilts placed on ice create the same elevation-related risk as do ladders and that he would hold that Labor Law § 240 (1) applies in this case.

The case is No. 31, Marc A. Nicometi, Appellant-Respondent, v. The Vineyards of Fredonia, LLC, et al., decided April 2, 2015.

Billboard Extensions

In the second case, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that a worker who fell while working to install extenders to a billboard in Erie County is covered within the scope of the Scaffold Law.

The plaintiff and other members of a construction crew were working on the installation of a new advertisement which required attaching additions to the existing frame of the billboard. These additions are referred to as “extensions,” and are plywood cutouts shaped to accommodate the advertisement’s artwork in cases where text or a picture exceeds the boundaries of the billboard’s frame.

According to court documents, a strong wind gust caused the advertisement vinyl to strike the plaintiff in the chest when he momentarily detached his lanyard from the upper catwalk’s safety cable to get around a crew member.

He fell 10 feet below onto the lower rear catwalk and landed with his back on an I-beam, and his shoulder on the metal catwalk. As a result, the plaintiff suffered a dislocated right shoulder and several herniated discs in his back, precluding him from engaging in work on billboards. The plaintiff was subsequently terminated from his employment.

A lower court previously ruled that the plaintiff’s work on the billboard did not constitute altering the building or structure for purposes of Labor Law § 240, and instead was “more akin to cosmetic maintenance or decorative modification.” However, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision, concluding that the plaintiff was engaged in work that constitutes an alteration within the meaning of the statute.

The Court of Appeals stated that the removal of an old advertisement and the installation of vinyl-covered plywood extensions to enlarge the shape of the billboard to accommodate the new advertisement’s artwork involves the type of physical change significant enough to constitute a section 240 (1) alteration, and the plaintiff’s work was different from routine maintenance or merely changing the outward appearance of the billboard.

The case is No. 35, Joseph Saint et al., Appellants, v. Syracuse Supply Company, Respondent, decided April 2, 2015.

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