By: Scott Hobson
A recent decision by the New York Court of Appeals in Dahar v. Holland Ladder & Mfgr., unanimously rejected an argument which would have dramatically expanded the Scaffold Law.
The case involved a factory worker, Dahar, who was cleaning a manufactured wall module in preparation for shipment to a customer when the ladder on which he was standing collapsed. Dahar sued his employer, the ladder manufacturer, the factory owners, the customer purchasing the wall module, and several others, alleging violations of the Scaffold Law. He argued that the Scaffold Law specifically applied to the cleaning of any structure.
However, the Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that,
“Plaintiff’s argument that he is within the statute’s coverage is a simple one. He says that he was obviously “cleaning,” and that the wall module was a “structure” under the broad definition we have given to the term: “any production or piece of work artificially built up or composed of parts joined together in some definite manner” (Caddy v Interborough R.T. Co., 195 NY 415, 420 ; see also Lewis-Moors v Contel of N.Y., 78 NY2d 942, 943 ; Joblon, 91 NY2d at 464). The argument is too simple, and would lead to an expansion of section 240 (1) liability that our cases do not support and that we are convinced the Legislature never intended.”
The high court outlined the potentially disastrous effect that affirming the plaintiff’s argument would have on the application of the Scaffold Law:
“…the logic of plaintiff’s argument here would expand the protections of Labor Law § 240 (1) even beyond manufacturing activities; the statute would encompass virtually every “cleaning” of any “structure” in the broadest sense of that term. Every bookstore employee who climbs a ladder to dust off a bookshelf; every maintenance worker who climbs to a height to clean a light fixture — these and many others would become potential Labor Law § 240 (1) plaintiffs”
Clearly, the last thing New York needs is broader application of this onerous and antiquated law. In fact, the court decision highlighted that the Scaffold Law is one of the most frequent sources of litigation in New York, describing the volume of cases brought under the law as “vast.”
The need to reform the law has never been greater. While this welcome decision has prevented a massive expansion of the Scaffold Law, it does nothing to address underlying problem – that the standard of absolute liability is unfair and widely abused. And no court decision will ever change that – after all, it is the Judicial branch’s job to interpret the law, not to write it.
Real reform to the Scaffold Law must strike at the heart of the issue. Only a legislative solution will fix this problem.
For more information on the Scaffold Law, visit www.ScaffoldLaw.org