Look Out Below–How Much Height Differential Is Required For A Falling Object Claim Under Labor Law 240(1)? (NY)
When a lawsuit alleges that a plaintiff’s injuries are caused by an object falling from the same relative height as plaintiff, does the claim satisfy the elevation hazard requirements of Labor Law §240(1)?
Liability under Labor Law §240(1) does not automatically apply just because an object fell and injured a worker. The law requires that a plaintiff prove that at the time the object fell, it was being hoisted or secured or “required securing for the purposes of the undertaking.” There is no bright line minimum height differential that determines whether an elevation hazard exits, but New York courts will consider the weight of the object and the amount of force it is capable of generating, even from a short descent.
In Melendez v. Brown-United, Inc., 2020 N.Y. Slip Op 50832(U) (July 2020 N.Y. Cnty), plaintiff was erecting a scaffold using 15ft long, 40-pound pipes to form the base of the scaffold. Immediately prior to the accident, plaintiff brought the pipe and lifted it into the base. Believing that another worker had tightened the pipe, plaintiff walked away and was hit in the head, neck, and shoulder by the pipe. The defendants moved for summary judgment arguing, among other things, that Labor Law §240(1) did not apply because the injury was not the result of an elevation-related risk.
The court disagreed, citing a Court of Appeals case which held that liability under Labor Law §240(1) is not precluded where the injured worker and the base of the falling object are at the same level. See Wilinski v. 334 E. 92nd Hous. Dev. Fund Corp., 18 N.Y.3d 1, 10 (2011). The court held that defendants failed to establish that plaintiff’s work did not subject him to a “physically significant elevation differential.” Given the height and weight of the pipe that hit plaintiff, the court could not conclude that the elevation differential was “de minimis.” The court also held that the defendants failed to prove that the injury was not the direct consequence of their failure to provide adequate protection against the risk of injury or that other protective devices were not required.
The Melendez decision reinforces the rule that a falling object claim under Labor Law §240(1) does not always require a significant height differential. New York courts will examine the facts to determine whether the law applies in a case where a falling object only travels a short distance.
Thank you to Gabriella Scarmato for her contribution to this post. Please email Andrew Gibbs with any questions.