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June 7, 2022

Unwitnessed Fall From Ladder Amounts to Mere Speculation of Liability Under Labor Law

The Appellate Division, First Department, in Public Adm’r of Queens County v. 124 Ridge LLC,i  recently reiterated the settled principle that liability under Labor Law §§ 240(1) and 241(6) cannot be based on mere speculation and, in those circumstances, those causes of action are properly dismissed.  

In 124 Ridge LLC, the plaintiff’s decedent was completing renovation work in the course of his employment with third-party defendant Casur Maintenance & Management, Inc., when he allegedly fell from an extension ladder and sustained injuries. The decedent passed away from his injuries shortly thereafter, prompting the plaintiff to commence this action for wrongful death.

Upon completion of discovery, it was undisputed that the decedent’s fall was unwitnessed and that no living person had any information as to how the incident occurred. Indeed, the decedent was found lying at the foot of the extension ladder, in a room in which he had been working alone, after several other workers on site heard a loud noise and a scream. 

On these facts, the defendant and the third-party defendant moved for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of the plaintiff’s Labor Law §§ 240(1) and 241(6) claims. They also argued, through the submission of photographs and deposition testimony, that the extension ladder was properly secured following the incident and that safety devices, such as harnesses, hardhats, and goggles, were available on site for the decedent’s use. The plaintiff opposed these motions, arguing that the photographs and deposition testimony relied upon were not credible, as the photographs were taken at least two days after the incident and the testimony was taken from a witness who waited nearly two hours before visiting the scene.  

The trial court denied the motions and found a triable issue of fact as to whether the extension ladder had been properly secured at the time of the alleged fall. On appeal, the First Department disagreed and reversed the trial court’s decision. The court reasoned that the defendant and the third-party defendant had established that no one was able to demonstrate the cause of this incident, and there was no direct or circumstantial evidence as to how the incident occurred. Thus, as it was just as likely that the incident was caused by the decedent’s misstep or loss of balance as opposed to a defective or improperly secured ladder, any finding by the trier of fact would necessarily be based on speculation rather than conclusions drawn from the evidence. As a result, dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint was appropriate. 

The First Department’s decision in 124 Ridge LLC highlights the fundamental and long-standing principle that liability must be proven, it cannot be presumed by the mere happening of an incident. Motion practice seeking dismissal is therefore appropriate where discovery reveals that a plaintiff’s causes of action are not supported by the established facts.


If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact Matthew Larkin, Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area chair, at mlarkin@barclaydamon.com; Scott Rogoff, Hotels, Hospitality & Food Service Team leader, at srogoff@barclaydamon.com; Jessica Tariq, associate, at jtariq@barclaydamon.com; or another member of the firm’s Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area or Hotels, Hospitality & Food Service Team.
 

                                                          

i2022 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 1471 (1st Dept. Mar. 10, 2022).

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