New York's Highest Court Continues To Expand Reach Of Labor Law § 240
In Wilinski v. 334 East 92nd Housing Development Fund Corp., et al., 2011 N.Y. Slip Op. 07477, the Court of Appeals -- in a significant expansion of the already vast reach of Labor Law § 240 -- held that a plaintiff who sustains an injury as a result of a falling object whose base stands at the same level as the plaintiff is not precluded from recovery under Labor Law § 240. In so holding, the Court deviated from overwhelming precedent that a "gravity related risk" protected by Labor Law § 240 is defined by a complete change in elevation of the injury causing instrumentality, be it a falling object or a falling plaintiff. Instead, the Court held that the necessary inquiry in analyzing a § 240 claim is not whether the injury resulted from a fall, either of the worker or of an object upon the worker, but rather whether a plaintiff's injuries were proximately caused by the failure to provide adequate protection against a risk arising from a physically significant elevation differential. This holding marks a significant shift in the Court's focus in determining the applicability of Labor Law § 240 to a plaintiff's claim. Moreover, while the proximate cause element has always been part of any Labor Law § 240 claim analysis, the Court's heavy reliance on that particular prong in Wilinski further muddies the water for defendants attempting to prevail in a Labor Law § 240 action.
In this personal injury action brought by plaintiff Antoni Wilinksi, on September 28, 2008, plaintiff and his co-workers were demolishing various brick walls located at a vacant warehouse owned by defendant 334 East 92nd Housing Development Fund Corporation. Id. Previous demolition on this particular floor had left two metal, vertical plumbing pipes unsecured. Id. These pipes were four inches in diameter and rose approximately 10 feet from the ground upon which Plaintiff was working. Id. As Plaintiff was demolishing the wall, debris from a nearby wall hit the pipes causing them to topple over onto Plaintiff. Id.
Plaintiff commenced suit alleging violations of Labor Law §§ 240(1) and 241(6). Id. At the conclusion of discovery, Plaintiff moved for summary judgment as to his § 240 claim and Defendants crossed moved. Id. The trial court granted Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and denied Defendants' motion, holding that Plaintiff established entitlement to judgment as a matter of law by demonstrating that the absence of a statutorily enumerated safety device proximately caused his injury. Id. The Appellate Court modified the decision by partially granting Defendants' motion for summary judgment as regards Plaintiff's § 240(1) claim. Id. Relying on precedent, the Appellate Court held that the accident was not the type of elevation related accident that the statute was intended to guard against. Id.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals, New York's Highest Court, overturned the Appellate Court's decision advising that the Appellate Court erred in relying on Misseritti v. Mark IV Constr. Co., 86 N.Y.2d 487 (1995) (wherein it was held that section 240 did not apply to the collapse of a firewall due to the Court's finding that the collapse was not due to a failure to provide a protective device contemplated by the statute). The Court of Appeals further rejected the notion that Misseritti called for a categorical exclusion of injuries caused by falling objects that, at the time of the accident, are on the same level as the plaintiff. While acknowledging that entitlement under § 240 depends partially upon the existence of an elevated risk, the Court nevertheless held that the most important inquiry is whether a plaintiff's injuries were proximately caused by the absence of or inadequacy of required safety devices.
When defending a Labor Law § 240 claim wherein the injury causing instrumentality's base was positioned on the same elevation as the plaintiff, counsel's focus should be on whether or not the injury was caused because of the absence or inadequacy of a safety device and not argue that the risk is not a "gravity related risk."