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Watch Where You Step: 2nd Department Affirms Sole Proximate Cause Defense (NY)

September 22, 2017

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New York Labor Law §§ 240(1), 241(6) are notoriously plaintiff-friendly, and liability defenses are often limited at trial.  Defenses usually center on the sole proximate cause argument, which is often difficult to prove.  However, in <em><a href="">Melendez v 778 Park Ave. Bldg. Corp.</a></em>, 2017 Slip Op 06175, the Second Department  affirmed the dismissal based on the sole proximate cause defense as well as other causation based arguments.
Plaintiff and coworkers were erecting a scaffold in the yard area of the defendant's building to make a platform even with the sidewalk.  Plaintiff was building the platform portion of the scaffold by placing wooden planks on top of steel I-beams when he stepped onto an unsecured wooden plank, causing him to fall.  Plaintiff alleged violations of Labor Law §§ 240(1), 241(6), and 200, and common-law negligence against the owner and general contractor.  The Supreme Court granted the portions of defendants’ motion to dismiss the Labor Law §§ 240(1), 241(6) cause of action.  The plaintiff appealed.
The Appellate Division affirmed the Supreme Court’s judgment.  The Court opined that in order to succeed on a cause of action alleged violation of Labor Law § 240(1), a plaintiff must demonstrate that there was a violation of the statute and that violation was a proximate cause of the accident.  In this case, the plaintiff was found to be sole proximate cause as he chose to step upon an unsecured plank that he had just seconds before placed on a narrow steel beam rather than standing upon the secured planking that was available to him and which he had used in the time leading up to the accident.
The Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal of the Labor Law § 241(6) cause of action because the alleged violations of the Industrial Code provisions were not a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries, or conversely, did not apply to the facts of this case.  The Court also affirmed the dismissals of the Labor Law § 200 and common-law negligence actions as against the general contractor, determining that the plaintiff's injuries did not arise from a dangerous condition on the premises, but from the manner in which the work was being performed.  On that basis, a defendant must have the authority to exercise supervision and control over the work to be liable.  Here, the defendant did not have the authority to control, direct or supervise the method or manner in which the work was performed.
The sole proximate cause defense is case specific and often difficult to prove.  However, this case provides an example of the Appellate Division rendering a decision, taking the events leading up to the accident into fair account.   The Court’s common sense analysis resulted in a properly affirmed dismissal. Thanks to Justin Pomerantz for his contribution to this post.  Please email <a href="">Brian Gibbons</a> with any questions.


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