Chupah Fall Triggers Scaffold Law Liability

By: Scott Hobson

As a consequence of its rather broadly defined scope and the sheer volume of litigation it generates, New York’s Scaffold Law is frequently the subject of judicial interpretation. Jurists have debated for decades about the boundaries of the law’s reach – what qualifies as “gravity-related”? When is “routine maintenance” not quite routine enough? How much elevation must be involved? The stakes are high for both sides – proving liability under the Scaffold Law is a slam-dunk for the plaintiffs’ attorneys, virtually guaranteeing a big settlement.

And now, a recent case from the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division (Second Department) has illustrated just how far the boundaries are being pushed.

The case, McCoy v. Abigail Kirsch unfolded thusly: On August 23, 2008, a wedding chupah was constructed for a wedding ceremony by Samuel McCoy, an employee of Atlas Florists at a catering facility owned by the defendant Abigail Kirsch. The chupah acts as a canopy under which brides and grooms stand during traditional Jewish weddings, and was made of pipe, wood and a fabric canopy.  On August 24, 2008 the plaintiff was disassembling the chupah, which stood at ten feet high, with the use of a six foot aluminum ladder, which was missing two feet.  Shortly into the disassembly, the ladder, which was being held by a coworker, slipped and McCoy fell suffering injuries.

The plaintiff’s lawyers argued that this chupah qualified as a “structure” because of the more intricate and substantial nature of its construction.  The defendants, citing a case in which the Appellate court ruled a wedding decoration did not qualify as a structure under the Scaffold Law, claimed the law was never intended to cover such structures.

Ultimately, the court sided with the plaintiff, and ruled that the defendant was liable under the Scaffold Law. However, the court noted that it would not provide a hard-and-fast definition of what counts as a structure and what is merely an arrangement of wood, pipes, and fabric. Said the Judge Dillon in the opinion, “Undoubtedly, there are wide variations of chupahs, some involving a series of durable interconnected parts, and others being much more simple and merely decorative in nature. Whether or not a chupah qualifies as a ’structure’ under Labor Law 240(1) requires a consideration of more than only the purpose for which it is used.”

The implications of this decision are certainly significant. While the court has provided a small measure of clarity as to how to determine what in fact qualifies as a “structure”, the decision is also encouraging for plaintiffs’ lawyers eager to push the boundary of an already bloated law. Indeed, the era of chupah- related litigation has likely just begun.

 

To find out more about the effort to reform the Scaffold Law, visit www.scaffoldlaw.org

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