Labor Law 240(1) in New York State: Scope Narrowed by Recent Ruling
This post was authored by Kaitlyn B. Rowe, J.D., AIC, Senior Claims Litigation Specialist at Rose and Kiernan, Inc.
Labor Law is a codification of the common law duty of owners and general contractors to protect workers on a construction project. One of the most well-known sections of the statute is Section 240(1), also known as the “Scaffold Law.” This section provides protection to construction workers who are injured from a fall from height while working on a construction project. There are several elements of the law that must be satisfied in order for Section 240(1) to apply. The State of New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department recently issued a ruling in Gutkaiss v. Delaware Avenue Merchants Group, Inc. and the City of Albany, narrowing the scope of what is considered “repair of a structure.”
Labor Law 240(1) places a non-delegable duty on owners and general contractors to protect workers from gravity-related risks, meaning the worker was injured by either falling from a height or injured by a falling object. In order for Section 240(1) to apply, the injured party must be a construction worker, as pedestrians walking near a construction site are not covered under this section, who was working on a “building” or “structure”. Additionally, one and two-family dwellings are not covered under the statute, however the terms “building” and “structure” are otherwise defined liberally by the courts and includes boats, tunnels, bridges and rail cars. In Gutkaiss, the “structure” at issue were light poles located on Delaware Avenue in Albany, NY.
The ruling Gutkaiss focuses on the type of construction work covered under Section 240(1). The statute states that “the erection, demolition, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning or pointing” of a building or structure fall under the statute. The plaintiff in Guitkaiss was hired to replace light bulbs on strands of decorative LED lights that were placed around the light poles five years earlier. While replacing the bulbs, one of the light poles fell over, causing the 16-foot ladder the plaintiff was working on to fall over as well, resulting in injury to the plaintiff. The plaintiff filed suit against the City of Albany and Delaware Avenue Merchants Group, Inc. alleging Labor Law 240(1) violation and negligence.
The plaintiff filed a partial Motion for Summary Judgement, which was granted by the lower court and established liability against the City of Albany under Labor Law 240(1). The City appealed and the Appellate Division reversed the lower court’s ruling. The appellate court reasoned that replacing the burnt out bulbs on the strand did not constitute a “repair,” as required under the statute, but instead was routine maintenance, which is not covered under the statute. The court went on to explain that the light strands were not part of the light poles themselves and were not intended to provide illumination to the street and sidewalk, but were rather purely decorative and “tasks associated with decorating a structure do not fall within the scope of Labor Law 240(1).”
This ruling narrowing the scope of Labor Law 240(1) is welcomed by owners and general contractors who have seen courts continuously liberally interpret the statute.