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June 16, 2015

Third Department Reaffirms That Falling Objects Do Not Create Automatic Liability Under Labor Law §240 (1)

Although Labor Law §240 (1) imposes absolute liability on building owners and contractors, the Appellate Division, Third Department recently reaffirmed that the "extraordinary protections" afforded under this statute are limited only "to a narrow class of dangers." In Christiansen v. Bonacio Construction, Inc., __ A.D.3d __, 2015 NY Slip Op 04700 (3d Dep't June 4, 2015), the Third Department specifically addressed the limited dangers covered by the statute when an objects falls from a height and injures a worker.

In Christiansen, the injured plaintiff was employed as a mason and was injured while walking underneath a scaffolding frame as he delivered materials to the worksite. According to witnesses, plaintiff was injured when the crossbar of the frame, which was upright but not connected to any part of the scaffold or the planking, fell approximately two feet and struck plaintiff in the back of the head and neck. Plaintiff brought suit against the owner and general contractor alleging violations of Labor Law §§200, 240(1) and 241(6) and common-law negligence. In response to the parties' motions for summary judgment, the trial court dismissed the Labor Law §§200, 241(6) and common-law negligence causes of action, but denied the remainder of the parties' motions.

The Third Department reversed the trial court with respect to the Labor Law §240(1) claim and held that this cause of action should have been dismissed. In doing so, the Court noted that not all injuries caused by falling objects result in liability under the statute. Instead, the plaintiff must demonstrate that he or she was involved in an "elevation-related risk" of the kind that the statute was designed to protect against, which arises only where there is a "physically significant elevation differential." Id. at *2, quoting Salazar v. Novalex Contr. Corp., 18 NY3d 134, 139 (2011). To determine whether a height differential is physically significant, it is necessary to consider "the weight of the object and the amount of force it was capable of generating, even over the course of a relatively short descent." Id.

Here, the Third Department found that the crossbar, which was located approximately two feet above plaintiff's head and weighed approximately 28 lbs, did not involve a physically significant height differential sufficient to impose liability under Labor Law §240(1). As such, the Third Department held that this cause of action should have been dismissed. The Third Department further held that there were questions of fact that should have precluded dismissal of the Labor Law §241(6) claim against the defendants, and the Labor Law §200 and common-law negligence claims against the general contractor. As such, these causes of action against the defendants were reinstated and remanded to the trial court for further action.

This decision reaffirms that liability under Labor Law §240(1) will not attach unless a plaintiff can establish that he or she was engaged in one of the "narrow class of dangers" the statute was designed to protect against.


If you require further information regarding the content of this Legal Alert, please contact either of the Co-Chairs of the Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area, Thomas J. Drury, at (716) 858-3845 or tdrury@barclaydamon.com or Matthew J. Larkin, at (315) 425-2805 or mlarkin@barclaydamon.com.

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