In 2013, a construction worker was injured while performing carpentry work at a construction site in New York. Prior to the accident, the owner of the property leased it to another company. The lessee hired a general contractor to oversee the construction of a store at the premises. The general contractor hired an on-site superintendent who in turn hired the company to perform carpentry work at this project.
On the day of his accident, the worker appeared at the jobsite and received instructions from his foreman. That day, demolition work was occurring at the premises and the foreman told the worker to remove an existing light fixture from a dropped ceiling which was approximately 12 feet above the floor. In order to reach the light fixture, he needed to use a Baker scaffold which was already in place when he arrived at the job that day. The Baker scaffold was approximately 5 feet above the ground and had no railings on the front and back of it. He was working with one co-worker at the time of his accident.
As the worker was standing on the scaffold, he reached up to remove the light fixture, having expected that the electricity had been turned off. As he reached up to cut the wires, he received a shock and fell off the scaffold onto the ground below. The injured worker could not recall what happened, and only remembered being on the ground and feeling like a ragdoll. He was not provided with a harness, hard hat, or any other safety device, nor did he see any other workers on the site utilizing such devices.
The injured construction worker filed a lawsuit against the property owner, lessee, general contractor, and the on-site superintendent under Construction Law § 240(1). It protects workers from gravity-related risks such as falling from a height or being struck by a falling object when they are engaged in a number of construction activities. The statute states that construction site owners, general contractors, and their agents are held strictly liable for violations of Construction Law § 240(1) regardless of whether they control the work being performed.
At his deposition, the worker’s foreman testified that he believed that the worker’s fall occurred because he passed out. He based this assumption on the fact that he observed that the workers eyes were closed and that his arms did not come up when he hit the floor. He also testified that the worker’s co-worker told him that the injured worker had a prior history of passing out.
Following discovery, all of the parties asked the judge for automatic assessment of liability. The lessee denied responsibility for this accident. The Court disagreed with the lessee, holding that it was subject to the requirements of Construction Law § 240(1) because it fulfilled the role of an owner by contracting to have the subject construction work performed for its benefit.
In support of his request for assessment of automatic liability against the defendants, the injured worker argued that he was injured when he was shocked by a wire that he was cutting which caused him to fall from the Baker scaffold. The construction worker further argued that he was caused to fall from the scaffold because it lacked proper railings and because he was not provided with other necessary safety devices to keep him from falling, such as a safety harness and a tie off point.
The Court agreed with the worker, that the Baker scaffold failed to prevent the injured construction worker from falling. Given the nature of the work that was being performed at the time of his accident, where it was reasonably foreseeable that the worker may be shocked by a live wire, a scaffold without railings was not a proper safety device as required by Construction Law § 240(1). In addition, given the unique nature of the work, the Court held that additional safety devices were needed such as a tie off point on the scaffold and safety harness or a horizontal safety line.
In opposition to the injured worker’s request, and in support of theirs, the defendants argued that the worker had not established that the scaffold was defective. They also argued that he was the sole proximate cause of his accident as he was working with a pre-existing medical condition which may have caused him to faint. The Court rejected both of those arguments. Under the New York Construction Law, a worker is not required to establish that a scaffold is defective, only that it failed to protect him from falling. And here, the defendants offered no evidence to support their mere speculation that the worker’s pre-existing medical condition caused his accident. Since the injured worker was not provided with a proper safety device to prevent him from falling, even if the worker had a pre-existing medical condition that caused him to faint, that at most goes to the workers’ comparative fault, and comparative fault is not a defense to Construction Law § 240(1) claim where, as here, a violation is shown. Accordingly, the Court granted the construction worker’s request sent the case for trial with jury on the issue of damages only.
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