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September 14, 2012

Court of Appeals Declines to Expand Interpretation of Labor Law § 240 (1)

New York's highest court recently refused to allow an employee to recover under Labor Law § 240 (1) where that employee fell from a height during the normal course of manufacturing a product.

In Dahar v. Holland Ladder & Manufacturing Co., 18 N.Y.3d 521 (2012), New York's Court of Appeals considered whether Labor Law § 240 should be extended to include a factory employee engaged in cleaning a manufactured product. As an employee of West Metal Works, Plaintiff was responsible for "cleaning" a seven-foot steel "wall module" after the module was fabricated and before it was shipped to the customer. Plaintiff fell from a ladder while cleaning the module. Plaintiff brought suit against his employer's landlords and the purchaser of the wall module, claiming that they qualified as "contractors and owners" under Labor Law § 240 (1).

In reviewing whether Plaintiff qualified for protection under the statute, the Court began by reviewing the text of the often-litigated statute, which provides in relevant part:

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.

Plaintiff argued that he was "cleaning" the wall module when he fell and that the product qualified as a "structure" under the broad definition given to that term.

In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals rejected Plaintiff's argument and refused to hold Defendants liable for Plaintiff's fall under the statute. The Court held that the "cleaning" of a "wall module" by an employee during the regular course of his manufacturing duties was not the type of activity covered by the statute. The Court reasoned that such an argument would lead to an expansion of liability under the statute that previous precedent did not support and that had not been intended by the Legislature. While the term "cleaning" can include activities occurring beyond the customary construction, demolition, or repair project, the Court has never gone as far as to extend the statute to reach a factory employee engaged in cleaning a product manufactured by his own employer.

The Court stated as a policy concern, an expansion of the statute as argued by Plaintiff would expand the protections of Labor Law § 240 (1) to encompass virtually every "cleaning" of any "structure" in the broadest sense of the term. For example, the Court stated that every bookstore employee who climbs a ladder to dust off a bookshelf, or every maintenance worker who climbs to a height to clean a light fixture could seek protection under the statute. The statute was clearly not intended to cover such activities.

The Court's recent holding in Dahar demonstrates the Court's unwillingness to broadly interpret Labor Law § 240 (1) beyond the purposes the statute was designed to serve.

If you require further information regarding the information presented in this Legal Alert and its impact on your organization, please contact any of the members of the Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area.


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