Scaffold Law Strict Liability?

Labor Law § 240 provides that “all contractors and owners and their agents, except owners of one and two-family dwellings who contract for but do not direct or control the work, in the erection, demolition, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning or pointing of a building or structure shall furnish or erect, or cause to be furnished or erected for the performance of such labor, scaffolding, hoists, stays, ladders, slings, hangers, blocks, pulleys, braces, irons, ropes, and other devices which shall be so constructed, placed and operated as to give proper protection to a person so employed”. While § 240 is often considered a strict liability statute, there are situations where a contractor may be able to avoid liability.

For example, in Blake v. Neighborhood Housing Service of New York, Inc., 1 N.Y.3d 280771 N.Y.S.2d 484 (2003), the Court found in favor of the contractor in a strict liability action brought by an injured worker on a housing project that the contractor funded. The plaintiff was a private subcontractor and the sole worker on this particular job. Plaintiff alone set up an extension ladder at the worksite and conceded it was in working condition, but upon commencing work the upper portion of the ladder retracted and he contended that he was injured as a result. Relying on Labor Law § 240, the worker brought a suit against the contractor, claiming the contractor was strictly liable under the statute because it failed to provide the worker with a proper workplace and the necessary safe equipment. The Court, however, declined to accept the plaintiff’s interpretation of the statute. Instead, it reminded us that an injury alone does not trigger liability under the relevant scaffold law, but rather the lack of a proper workplace and safe equipment must be the proximate cause of the worker’s injuries. Referring back to a deposition, the court pointed out that the worker himself admitted that the ladder was secure and not broken or defective when he used it. Among other admissions by the injured worker, this led the Court to find that worker himself was the “proximate cause” of his injuries. As a result, the contractor escaped liability.

Therefore a contractor or owner of a premises may be liable to a worker injured during a job under Labor Law § 240, but such liability is not always strictly applied. Rather, the worker’s actions must be scrutinized as well. The work space may be safe and the worker may be injured regardless of the safe condition. If it is found that the sole proximate cause of the worker’s injuries is his own negligent conduct, he is barred from recovering from the owner or contractor under the statute.

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