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De Minimis Height Elevation Does Not Trigger Labor Law 240 (1) Liability Under NY Law

October 20, 2009

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The decisions considering what constitutes a violation of Section 240 (1) of New York's Labor Law could fill a small library. The stakes are not purely academic since a Section 240 (1) violation imposes non-delegable, strict liability on owners and general contractors. Even worse, a jury cannot even consider the comparative negligence of the injured plaintiff where such a violation is proven unless the worker's negligence is the sole proximate cause of the accident.
With this background in mind, in<i> DeGabriel v. Strong Place Realty, LLC</i>, a motion court recently examined, among other things, whether section 240 (1) liability could be imposed where a steel I beam fell on a worker at a construction site. The beam was one of several stacked unsecured on the floor and was about 40 inches off the ground. The question was whether the beam posed an "elevation related" risk sufficient to trigger the statute's protection. The motion court held that a mere 40 inch height elevation was insufficient to implicate section 240 (1). In granting the defendant's motion for summary judgement and dismissing the 240 (1) count, the court relied on the fact that the beams were stacked on the floor at a height of less than four feet and did not extend above plaintiff's head.
The courts continue to struggle with the scope of section 240 (1) liability with a trend emerging that the statute is not triggered in every situation involving a falling object or worker. Perhaps a more realistic view of the statute and the harm it was meant to eliminate will help stimulate the construction industry by signaling to contractors and their insurers that the industry will not be subject to unreasonable liability for contruction related accidents. Or at least that is the hope.
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