A common feeling of apprehension among contractors in New York State is compliance with New York’s workplace safety statutes.These statutes codify a common law duty of owners and general contractors to maintain a safe work environment.Labor Law §200 imposes a general duty on owners, general contractors, and/or their agents who have authority to control working conditions at the site to correct or protect construction workers from any unsafe conditions.If this duty is violated and such violations were a contributing factor to the cause of the accident, the owner(s) and general contractor(s) are liable for any resulting injuries.Labor Law §240(1), otherwise known as the “Scaffold Law”, imposes a specific duty on contractors and owners to provide appropriate scaffolding and other safety measures where workers are engaged in “erection, demolition, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning or pointing of building or structure”. Absolute liability is imposed under Section 240 if a worker is injured because such protections are insufficient.Finally, Labor Law §241(6) imposes a broader, nondelegable duty on owners, general contractors, and their agents to “provide reasonable and adequate protection and safety” to construction workers. These reasonable and adequate measures of protection are found in New York’s Industrial Code.
In the past, New York courts have been hesitant to dismiss claims involving violations of Labor Law §§200, 240 and 241.This trend continues, as reflected in the recent Court of Appeals decision in Barreto v. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, 25 N.Y.3d 426 (2015).In Barreto, the plaintiff was an asbestos handler employed by a contractor that was hired by the City of New York to perform asbestos removal from electrical cables underneath city streets.The contractor hired a site safety consultant, IMS Safety Inc. (IMS), to supervise the work and ensure that it was completed in a safe work environment.Plaintiff and several other workers climbed through a manhole and descended approximately 10 feet by way of a ladder while they completed the asbestos removal.The workers then exited the manhole and began to break down the containment enclosure surrounding the manhole.In doing so, plaintiff fell through the uncovered manhole. Plaintiff sued the City of New York, the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) on behalf of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, as well as the site safety consultant, IMS, alleging that the manhole should have been covered or surrounded by guardrails.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims on the grounds that he was the sole cause of his injuries because he disregarded his supervisor’s instructions by dismantling the containment enclosure before the manhole cover was replaced. This decision was affirmed on appeal by the Appellate Division, but the Court of Appeals reversed, reinstating the plaintiff’s claims and remitting the matter back to the trial court. The Court of Appeals found that the plaintiff could not have been solely responsible for his own injuries because it took at least two workers to lift and move the heavy manhole cover. Therefore, plaintiff had established liability against the City, the NYCTA, and the MTA on his Labor Law §240(1) claims because 1) the accident was caused by a violation of the statute (here, the absence of an adequate safety device surrounding the manhole), and 2) the absence of such safety device contributed to the cause of the accident.
The moral of the story: claims involving New York’s workplace safety statutes are rarely dispelled by the courts without a trial—particularly when a contractor fails to prove that it took adequate safety precautions to protect workers. Thus, in order to avoid costly, complex litigation, contractors should pay particular attention to the obligations imposed by New York’s Labor Law. Contractors not only have to make safety a priority, but in order to have any chance at staving off such a claim they must have the documentation to prove that safety was a priority, that workers were adequately protected from the usual hazards involved in construction and that but for the worker’s own actions the accident could not have happened. Good legal counsel can help you in advising you what documentation could be considered adequate to give your firm a chance at successfully defending such claims.