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Incomplete Projects, Unresolved Questions: Examining Contractor Liability in New York's Labor Legal Framework

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Recently, in Woodruff v. Islandwide Carpentry Contractors, Inc., 2023 N.Y. Slip Op. 06558 (2d Dep’t 2023), the Second Department faced a plaintiff construction worker’s appeal. Initially, the Supreme Court granted summary judgment in favor of defendant subcontractor, dismissing plaintiff’s claims arising from Labor Law §240(1) and §241(6). At the time of his accident, Plaintiff was an employee of a general contractor responsible for construction at the subject premises. Defendant subcontractor was responsible for installing the ceiling of the second-floor of the building, and although it was installed, the ceiling was left unfinished by defendant. Plaintiff’s supervisor instructed him to finish the ceiling spackle job started by defendant subcontractor. To reach the unfinished patch of ceiling, plaintiff stood on a stairwell railing, but slipped on the railing while working, ultimately falling down to the first floor and suffering injuries as a result.

The plaintiff sued various parties, including defendant subcontractor, alleging violations of Labor Law §240(1) and §241(6). The Supreme Court granted defendant subcontractor’s motion for summary judgment, in which the subcontractor argued that it was not a statutory agent of either the premises owners or the general contractor. Upon appeal to the Appellate Division, the Second Department affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the subcontractor.

Key to its ruling, the Second Department reaffirmed case precedent which established that for a plaintiff to prevail on claims of Labor Law §240(1) and §241(6) violations, “there must be a showing that it had the authority to supervise and control the work that brought about the injury.” Importantly, “[t]he determinative factor is whether the party had the right to exercise control over the work, not whether in actually exercised that right.” In affirming judgment in favor of defendant subcontractor, the court was satisfied with the subcontractor’s showing that it was not at the construction site at the time of the accident, it did not have any authority to supervise or control the plaintiff’s work, and that it was not an agent of either the premises owners or the general contractor.

This case serves as a critical reminder of the importance of the “control” aspect of Labor Law §240(1) and §241(6) claims. Without control over an injured plaintiff’s N.Y. Labor Law-protected work, defendants will likely prevail upon moving for summary judgment, regardless of other factual circumstances.

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