By: Scott Hobson
In a recent decision by the Appellate Division of the First Department (Bronx), the court ruled that the plaintiff’s fall from a wooden pallet did not trigger liability under the “Scaffold Law.”
The Scaffold Law imposes absolute liability (total liability regardless of fault) on contractors and property owners for “gravity-related” injuries. However, what constitutes “gravity-related” is a matter of frequent disagreement. While courts often apply the law in cases where the injury was a result of a “substantial elevation differential,” this standard is far from comprehensive.
In this case, Cappabianca v. Skanska USA Bldg. Inc., the plaintiff was injured when a pallet he was standing on shifted, causing him to fall and injure his knee. In rejecting the Scaffold Law claim, the court noted that,
“As for the claims against [the defendants] under Labor Law § 240(1), often called the scaffold law, [plaintiff’s] accident could not give rise to liability under that statute because he was at most 12 inches above the floor and was not exposed to an elevation-related risk requiring protective safety equipment (see e.g. Toefer v Long Is. R.R., 4 NY3d 399  [fall from floor of a flatbed truck to ground four-to-five feet below did not trigger scaffold law coverage because the use of statute’s enumerated safety devices are normally associated with more dangerous activity]; Lombardo v Park Tower Mgt. Ltd., 76 AD3d 497, 498  [no scaffold law claim where a staircase step, raised 18 inches above the floor, broke and caused the plaintiff to fall]; Torkel v NYU Hosps. Ctr., 63 AD3d 587, 590  [ramp whose bottom rested on the street and whose top rested on the adjacent sidewalk curb, with height differential of at most 12 to 18 inches, did not expose the plaintiff to type of hazard that the scaffold law contemplates]; Skudlarek v Bethlehem Steel Corp., 251 AD2d 974, 975  [dismissing scaffold law claim by a plaintiff who fell from 10- to 12-inch high pallet onto floor]).”
The Appellate Court’s no-nonsense approach is encouraging. But even the most common-sense interpretation of the Scaffold Law won’t fix its glaring problems. A real solution must fundamentally change the law to eliminate the absolute liability standard and allow the courts to factor in negligence (if any) on the part of the injured worker. Until then, New Yorkers will continue to bear the burden of this costly and outdated law.
To find out more about the effort to reform the Scaffold Law, visit www.scaffoldlaw.org