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August 12, 2014

New York Federal Court Restricts Application of Runner Doctrine: Labor Law 240(1) Inapplicable When Object Is Not on a Fall or Descent

On August 1, 2014, the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Mordue, J.) issued a decision that restricted the recent trend of expanding the applicability of New York State's Labor Law § 240(1) to construction site injuries, based upon the Court of Appeals' prior decision in Runner v. New York Stock Exch., 13 N.Y.3d 599 (2009). In Diaz v. GLOBALFOUNDRIES U.S. Inc., et. al., Case No. 12-cv-01327 (Aug. 1, 2014), the court granted summary judgment and dismissed the claim for a violation of Labor Law 240(1) against the defendant premises owner and general contractor, finding that the Runner doctrine did not apply to the facts of the matter.

In Runner, Plaintiff and several coworkers attempted to move a large reel of wire, weighing some 800 pounds, down a set of about four stairs and the Plaintiff acted as a counterweight to a rope tied around a horizontal bar across a door jamb. The workers pushed the reel and as it descended it pulled Plaintiff who was essentially acting as counterweight, toward the metal bar, where he injured his hands as they jammed against it. Id. at 602.

In Diaz, the Plaintiff was a heating and ventilation contractor, who was installing a cap on a piece of ductwork, while standing on a ladder sixteen feet off the floor. He pulled the cap up with a rope attached to a vice-grip. During his deposition, the Plaintiff testified that his injury occurred as he attempted to install the cap into place when it was at the top of the ladder. The Plaintiff did not fall, and nothing fell on him. Nonetheless, Plaintiff contended that his injury occurred because, as was the case in Runner, a pulley system should have been used instead of a jerry-rigged rope, which in both cases, ultimately failed to perform its intended function. Id. at 2-5, 9.

However, the federal court read Runner differently. Noting that "New York courts have long applied a 'falling worker or falling object' standard in evaluating whether a case falls within the reach of section 240(1)," the Court observed that Runner did not change the fact the statute was designed to protect against "harm directly flowing from the application of the force of gravity to an object or person." After analyzing Runner, it found that the Plaintiff's injury was not the type of injury the statute was designed to protect. Id. at 7-9. Specifically, the Court found that Runner did not hold "that such liability may arise where the object does not fall or descend" because the Runner court treated the term "force of gravity" as meaning the force generated by the interaction between the weight of the object and its descent. Here, the Court found that Plaintiff was "injured by the ordinary operation of gravity while lifting a heavy object" and because the object was not on a fall or descent, Labor Law § 240(1) was inapplicable. Id. at 10. The Court concluded that the plaintiff was "not aided by the fact that he had raised the duct door from a lower level to an elevated height; because there was no fall or descent, his injury did not directly flow from the application of the force of gravity to an object or person within the meaning of Runner and other New York high court authority." Id. at 10. (citations and quotations omitted).

This decision will likely have persuasive value in New York federal and state trial courts in Labor Law cases where a plaintiff does not fall and no object falls on him. While Plaintiffs will likely continue to try to fit such cases under Labor Law § 240(1), this decision may serve as a basis to move for summary judgment in the event the evidence shows that an object neither fell, nor was on a descent when the Plaintiff's injury occurred, thus providing a new line of defense in cases involving alleged violations of Labor Law § 240(1).

If you require further information regarding the content presented in this Legal Alert and its impact on your organization, please contact Thomas B. Cronmiller, Chair of the Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area, at (585) 295-4424 or tcronmiller@hblaw.com.

 

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