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Injuries from Falls from Heights--The Scaffold Law, Labor Law 240 (1)

Injuries from Falls from Heights--The Scaffold Law, Labor Law 240 (1)

Labor Law section 240 (1), popularly known as the "Scaffold Law," provides a special right of recovery to construction workers who are injured from an elevation risk. The Scaffold Law covers cases involving both falls by workers as well as workers being hit by falling objects.

This law often creates liability and a right of recovery where none would otherwise exist for the construction worker. This law imposes absolute liability against the owner and his agent. Therefore, under the statute, liability is assumed. The sole issue to be resolved at trial will be the amount of damages. Hence, the issue of whether a given case falls within the statute is often heavily contested and is a commonly litigated subject in appellate courts. To reiterate, the Labor Law is the only means of recovery in the courts for an injured worker and it is an assured road to monetary recovery.

To receive the protections of Labor Law section 240 (1), various requirements must be met. The courts will favor a strict interpretation of the law since it creates a right of recovery outside the common law.

The Law Exempts One- and Two-Family Homeowners

The law is not applicable to one- and two-family homes where the owner does not direct or control the work. Therefore, in the typical arrangement where an owner has a new one-family home constructed and where he has his general contractor perform the construction work, the owner will not be liable.

However, if the homeowner directs the work, then this exemption will not apply. For example, if the homeowner acts as his own general contractor and hires and supervises the various sub-contractors, then he may be found liable under this statue.

Labor Law section 240 (1) is applicable to three-family homes, apartment houses, and commercial buildings.

The Work Must Be On a Structure

Typically, “structure” refers to a building, but the term can also be used to refer to boats, rail cars, subway tunnels, bridges, water towers, and garages. A recent court case held that a chuppah, the temporary canopy of flowers and other decorations built for a Jewish wedding, is a structure for the purposes of the Labor Law.

A tree is not a structure. Therefore, if a worker fell from a ladder while pruning a tree, the statute would not apply.

The Work Must Fall within the Definitions

The statute applies to the following specific types of construction work:

  • erection
  • demolition
  • repairing
  • altering
  • painting
  • cleaning
  • pointing of a building
  • erection of scaffolding, hoists, stays, ladders, slings, handers, blocks, pulleys, braces, irons, ropes, and other devices

In contrast, if the activity is either maintenance related or decorative, it is not deemed to be construction. Similarly, manufacturing work is also not covered by the statute.

The following are examples of types of work that are NOT covered:

  • changing light bulbs
  • changing pictures
  • cleaning by a maid
  • inspection of the construction work in progress
  • salvage operations
  • routine maintenance, such as changing HVAC filters, dusting light fixtures, etc.
  • installation of drapes

The Accident Must Involve The Force of Gravity

The ultimate goal of the law is to protect the worker against the dangers of gravity. To apply the statute, the accident must have occurred when the worker fell or when the worker was injured by a falling object. The mere fact that the worker was "elevated" does not create a cause of action under the Labor Law. A well known case clearly illustrates this point:

The worker sustained a herniated disc because he had to do his work in an awkward position while seated in a suspended chair. The chair did not fail and the worker did not fall. The worker's back was injured since he had to work for an extended time while twisting his back. The fact that he was elevated was irrelevant to the case. He could have sustained the same injury while on the ground.  

Further, the falling of an object on a worker does not create Labor Law liability in and of itself. In order to get the statute's protection, an object must fall as a result of a failure of an elevation device, such as an elevator, pulley, hoist, scaffold, or ladder. An act of carelessness by a co-worker or an unexplained accident (such as a girder which collapses) will not be covered under the statute unless the object fell due to a failure of an enumerated elevation device. A co-worker's thermos bottle which drops from a height and hits a co-worker below would not qualify under the Labor Law. 

For example, upon the completion of a retail store a general laborer is struck on the head from a falling pulley. The store was almost completed, and the worker was cleaning for the general contractor. Ordinarily, a defective pulley would be covered by the statute. However, in this case the pulley was not being used to elevate works or material. Rather, the pulley was holding a decorative banner which was part of the store's decor. The court ruled that the pulley was not being used in construction, therefore Labor Law section 240 (1) was not applicable.

Labor Law Protects Only Construction Workers

The statute protects only construction workers. It does not protect pedestrians on the street who may be innocent victims. Furthermore, the property owner is not covered by the statute.

Conclusion

Scaffold Law cases are heavily contested in the courts because they create rights of recovery which do not ordinarily exist within the law. In many instances, a client's case is decided by either the trial court or the appellate court on a summary judgment motion as to whether the accident falls within Labor Law section 240 (1).

In a construction accident it is important to explore not only whether the ordinarily rules of negligence apply but whether Labor Law section 240 (1) applies. There is another Labor Law provision, section 241 (6) which might apply. It is known as the "Safe Place to Work Statute." See the article on Labor Law section 241 (6). All of these theories may be involved in the case.

If you have been injured in a construction accident, please call us for a free consultation at 800-581-1434 or write to letters@seitelman.com. You need an attorney well versed in construction accidents. We have handled many construction accidents.

Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

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