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Fact Issues Concerning Plaintiff’s Fault Precludes Summary Judgment in New York Labor Case (NY)

September 8, 2023

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New York courts hold that comparative negligence is not a defense in cases involving a claim under Labor Law § 240(1). However, plaintiff’s fault can still form the basis for a defense and prevent plaintiffs from obtaining summary judgment as to a defendant’s liability under § 240(1).

The Appellate Division, Second Department, recently addressed these issues in <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Elibox-v.-Nehemiah-Spring-Cr.-IV-Mixed-Income-Hous.-Dev.-Fund-Co.-Inc.pdf">Elibox v. Nehemiah Spring Cr. IV Mixed Income Hous. Dev. Fund Co., Inc.</a> </em>In that case, the plaintiff was performing work on a construction project and was allegedly injured when a scaffold he was working on collapsed. Plaintiff sued the owner and general contractor on the project alleging violations of Labor Law § 240(1) and § 241(6). Plaintiff moved for summary judgment as to defendants’ liability under those sections and the trial court denied the motion.

The Second Department affirmed, recognizing that although plaintiff’s comparative negligence is not a defense to a cause of action under Labor Law § 240(1), "[a] defendant is not liable under Labor Law § 240(1) where the plaintiff's own actions are the sole proximate cause of the accident." Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to defendants as the non-moving party, the Court found that the trial court’s denial of plaintiff’s summary judgment motion was proper because the defendants raised a triable issue of fact by showing that (1) the scaffold was correctly constructed, and (2) that plaintiff affected the condition of the scaffold by removing the nails securing the plank upon which he was standing "in such a manner as to create the condition causing its collapse." In doing so, defendants were able to avoid summary judgment as to their liability and preserve the proximate cause defense for trial.

The <em>Elibox</em> decision serves as a reminder that plaintiff’s fault is still a valid consideration in Labor Law cases and can represent a complete defense where a defendant can establish that plaintiff’s conduct was the sole proximate cause of an accident. Courts may find the existence of fact issues as in <em>Elibox</em>, but defendants should pursue the defense if there is evidence that plaintiff was at fault. It should also be noted that defendants in <em>Elibox</em> did not cross move for summary judgment, which would have imposed a higher burden of proof. Instead, they opposed the plaintiff’s motion and benefited from the reasonable inferences given to the non-moving party.

Thank you to Alexander Rabhan for his contribution to this post. Please contact <a href="agibbs@wcmlaw.com">Andrew Gibbs</a> with any questions.

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