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Ladder In the Snow? A Shifting Target (NY)

September 17, 2021

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<p style="text-align: justify;">In theory, Labor Law 240(1) strict liability will not attach if the plaintiff is the sole proximate cause of his accident – such as if the plaintiff improperly sets up a ladder by placing it on snow. However, the Third Department recently held that if a ladder shifts or otherwise fails to perform its function as a result of how the worker set it up, the failure of the ladder constitutes a statutory violation as one proximate cause of the accident – therefore precluding a defendant from arguing that the plaintiff was the sole proximate cause of the accident sufficient to defeat Labor Law 240(1) strict liability.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">In <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Begeal.pdf">Begeal</a> v. Jackson</em>, 2021 WL 4201557 (3d Dep’t 2021) the plaintiff was employed by an industrial painting company and was instructed to construct a ventilation stack on top of a commercial building which was one of his employer’s facilities. To accomplish this task, the plaintiff brought an aluminum extension ladder outside alone with no assistance or supervision, raised the extension part of the ladder, and then placed the ladder in an area that had snow. He then ascended the ladder, which he testified felt secure. While on the ladder, he testified that he shifted his position to get another screw out of his pocket when the ladder shifted and began to fall. Plaintiff fell with the ladder and sustained injuries after falling approximately 12 feet. Thereafter, he filed suit and raised claims of common law negligence as well as Labor Law 200, 240(1), and 241(6).</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">After the completion of discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment to dismiss the complaint in its entirety, and the plaintiff cross- moved for partial summary judgment regarding his Labor Law 240(1) claim only. The motion court denied both motions, and the parties thereafter filed cross-appeals. The Third Department ultimately held that the defendants had failed to establish that the plaintiff was the sole proximate cause of his injuries. Although the defendants raised a number of points as to how the plaintiff caused his own accident – by not using alternative safety devices or a scaffold, not requesting assistance in using the ladder, and (most critically) not clearing the snow before placing the feet of the ladder – the Third Department held that these circumstances only touched upon the plaintiff’s comparative negligence and were ultimately irrelevant in the face of the statutory violation. Specifically, the Appellate Division held that when a ladder “slips or otherwise fails to perform its function of supporting the worker”, that is sufficient to establish a <em>prima facie</em> Labor Law 240(1) statutory violation as the proximate cause of the accident which therefore precludes the plaintiff’s negligence from being the sole proximate cause. As such, the Third Department reversed the trial court and granted the plaintiff’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment on his Labor Law 240(1) claim.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to Shira Straus for her contribution to this post. Please contact <a href="mailto:Haquino@wcmlaw.com">Heather Aquino</a> with any questions.</p>

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