The strict liability imposed by Section 240 of the New Labor Law appears to have been somewhat clarified in the decision of Rupert Blake v. Neighborhood Housing Services of New York City, Inc., 2003 NY Slip Opinion 19690, Court of Appeals (Dec. 2003). In this case, the plaintiff was an individual that operated his own contracting company. He was working alone on a renovation job at a two-family house when the ladder on which he was standing collapsed, resulting in the plaintiff breaking his ankle.
The plaintiff filed suit against Neighborhood Housing Services of New York City (NHS), a not-for-profit lender, which had provided low-interest financing to facilitate the project. NHS had nothing to do with construction decisions or supervision. Its role was limited to dispatching a rehabilitation specialist to the premises to assess the scope of the work and the amount of the loan. NHS prepared a work estimate and gave the homeowner a list of contractors, from which she chose plaintiff.
Plaintiff contended that NHS was strictly liable under New York Labor Law, section 240(1) as a statutory agent under the section for having failed to provide a proper workplace and mandated safety equipment. At trail, a jury found against the plaintiff on the facts presented. The trial court denied plaintiff’s motion to vacate the jury’s verdict and direct one in his favor. The Appellate Division affirmed, stating that “a factual issue was posed as to whether plaintiff’s injury was caused by some inadequacy of the ladder or was solely attributable to the manner in which plaintiff used the ladder” and that there were no grounds to disturb the jury’s factual determinations. On appeal, the plaintiff argued Labor Law § 240 (1) is a strict (or absolute) liability statute and that the court should have set aside the jury’s verdict.
The question for the court was whether a plaintiff who was injured while using a ladder may prevail in a Labor Law § 240 (1) action even when a jury finds that the ladder was so constructed and operated as to give him proper protection and he was the sole cause of his injury.
The court stated that in deciding the appeal, it is necessary to address the concept of strict (or absolute) liability and the predicates for its application under Labor Law § 240 (1). The court explained that it has in numerous previous decisions “steadfastly held that contributory negligence will not exonerate a defendant who has violated the statute and proximately caused a plaintiff’s injury.” But the Court states that: “At no time, however, did the Court or the Legislature ever suggest that a defendant should be treated as an insurer after having furnished a safe workplace. The point of Labor Law § 240 (1) is to compel contractors and owners to comply with the law, not to penalize them when they have done so.”
Plaintiff asserts, in essence, that despite the jury’s findings he is entitled to recover because Labor Law § 240 (1) provides for strict (or absolute) liability. In addressing this contention, we note that the words strict or absolute liability do not appear in Labor Law § 240 (1) or any of its predecessors. Indeed, it was the Court — and not the Legislature — that began to use this terminology in 1923 (under an earlier version of the statute [see L 1921, ch 50]), holding that employers had an “absolute duty” to furnish safe scaffolding and would be liable when they failed to do so and injury resulted.”
The Court states that it has always stressed two points in applying the doctrine of strict (or absolute) liability under section 240 (1) of the Labor Law. “First, that liability is contingent on a statutory violation and proximate cause…. [and] second, that when those elements are established, contributory negligence cannot defeat the plaintiff’s claim.” It is imperative, therefore, to recognize that the phrase “strict (or absolute) liability” in the Labor Law § 240 (1) context is different from the use of the term elsewhere, says the Court. Thus, says the Court, “an accident alone does not establish a Labor Law § 240 (1) violation or causation.”
The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that “he is entitled to recover in the face of a record that shows no violation and reveals that he was entirely responsible for his own injuries,” concluding that to impose liability for a ladder injury even though all the proper safety precautions were met would not further the Legislature’s purpose. The court stated: “If liability were to attach even though the proper safety devices were entirely sound and in place, the Legislature would have simply said so, or made owners and contractors into insurers. Instead, the Legislature has enacted no-fault workers’ compensation to address workplace injuries where, as here, the worker is entirely at fault and there has been no Labor Law violation shown.”
An additional reason the Court gave for rejecting the Plaintiff’s suit and holding NHS could not be liable under the New York Labor Law was that NHS was not itself a contractor or project owner, or an agent of a project owner. Authority would have had to be given to a NHS by the owner to supervise or control the work in order for NHS to be deemed an agent for purposes of Labor Law section 240 (1). The court states: “Although defendant [NHS] here coordinated home repair work, it did not involve itself with the details of how individual contractors would perform their jobs. Instead, NHS acted as a lender: it is a non-profit organization that provides low-interest loans. The homeowner retained primary control over decisions on how the renovation project would proceed. NHS did not supervise the contractor; it never instructed workers on how to undertake repairs, and it took only a de minimis role in ensuring that the contractor would complete the financed repairs.
About the author: Article written by J. Kent Holland, Jr., a construction lawyer located in Tysons Corner, Virginia, with a national practice (formerly with Wickwire Gavin, P.C. and now with Construction Risk Counsel, PLLC) representing design professionals, contractors and project owners. He is founder and president of a consulting firm, ConstructionRisk, LLC, providing consulting services to owners, design professionals, contractors and attorneys on construction projects. He is publisher of ConstructionRisk.com Report and may be reached at Kent@ConstructionRisk.com or by calling 703-623-1932. This article is published in ConstructionRisk.com Report, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jan 2004).
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