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Gravity Induced Accidents Only: Clarity on Labor Law §240(1) (NY)

July 9, 2021

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<p style="text-align: justify;"><em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Robert-Shencavitz-v.-Yuji-Sugimoto.pdf">Robert Shencavitz v. Yuji Sugimoto</a></em> is an interesting personal injury action. Plaintiff – a sailboat rigging technician – sought recovery under New York Labor Law §240(1) (i.e., the Scaffold Law) for damages sustained when his head was struck on a sailboat’s radar equipment while ascending via pulley along the vessel’s mast. The issue on Defendant’s summary judgment motion was whether Plaintiff’s alleged injury arose from work performed “at elevation” within the meaning of §240(1).</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The facts of <em>Shencavitz</em> were undisputed. Defendant owned the “Yumi III” – a forty-two-foot sailing yacht. On the date of the incident, the Yumi III was moored at a boatyard, where it was undergoing maintenance/repairs. Defendant played no role whatsoever in the work itself and was unaware about its details. To perform work to the Yumi III, the boatyard’s co-owner repeatedly hoisted Plaintiff up the mast using the halyard (i.e., the rope that raises and lowers the sails). Rigging technicians, like Plaintiff, typically ascend masts in this fashion. After two trips up the mast, Plaintiff suggested using a different method (i.e., via crane). But the boatyard’s co-owner insisted that using the halyard would be faster and easier. On the third trip, Plaintiff’s head struck the bottom of the radar unit – which was plainly visible and protruded from the mast. Plaintiff did not fall. The ship was in good working order with no relevant dangerous conditions.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The only question before the Court was whether strict liability attached under Labor Law §240(1)’s statutory construct. The purpose of this statute “is to protect construction workers not from routine workplace risks, but from the pronounced risks arising from construction worksite elevation differentials ….” <em>Runner v. New York Stock Exch., Inc.</em>, 13 N.Y.3d 599, 603 (2009). Following certification of questions by the Second Circuit, the Court of Appeals clarified in <em>Runner</em> that the statute was not limited to “falling worker” and “falling object” cases. <em>Id</em>. at 604. In further clarifying the questions asked, the Court of Appeals held that “[t]he relevant inquiry—one which may be answered in the affirmative even in situations where the object does not fall on the worker—is rather whether the harm flows directly from the application of the force of gravity to the object.” <em>Id.</em> The Second Circuit then reiterated the Court of Appeal’s determination, opining that “liability under New York Labor Law §240(1) … arises when ‘the harm [that causes an injury] flows directly from the application of the force of gravity to the object[.]’” <em>Runner v. New York Stock Exch., Inc</em>., 590 F.3d 904, 905 (2d Cir. 2010). Based on the foregoing, the <em>Shencavitz</em> Court determined that liability under § 240(1) is limited to gravity-induced incidents. Here, since Plaintiff was injured during an ascent powered by the pull of the shipyard’s co-owner, gravity played no role in the accident. As such, Defendant’s summary judgment motion was granted.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The main takeaway from <em>Shencavitz</em> is the Court’s clarification on the applicability of Labor Law §240(1). Only injuries arising from the application of gravity to a person or object are within the ambit of §240(1). If an alleged injury is not caused by gravity, any action pursuant to §240(1) is essentially tossed into the wind.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to John Amato for his contribution to this post. If you have any questions or comments, please contact <a href="mailto:chayes@wcmlaw.com">Colleen Hayes</a>.</p>

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