Physics? Who Needs That!

By: Scott Hobson

As if we needed another reminder of the utter absurdity – and often downright insanity – of the Scaffold Law…

Yesterday, the First Department Appellate Division issued a decision in Strojek v. 33 East 70th Street Corp., that will leave anyone with even a shred of common sense shaking their head in disbelief.

In Strojek, the plaintiff, and asbestos remediation worker, fell and was injured when his portable scaffold tipped over. His lawyers moved for summary judgement, meaning that there was no need for a liability trial because there were no conceivable set of conditions under which the defendants could avoid liability. Remember, it’s the Scaffold Law – injury: check; gravity: check; liability: slam dunk. The trial court agreed, and the defendants appealed. The Appellate court upheld the ruling.

Let’s take a closer look at the plaintiff’s claims. He claimed that the fall knocked him unconscious, and he came to on the floor with the scaffold next to him – no memory of how the fall happened. That’s awfully convenient but, in fairness, plausible. Also, there was nobody else to witness the fall; suspiciously convenient. No problem here said the court – “That plaintiff could not remember how he fell does not bar summary judgment. Nor does the fact that he was the only witness raise an issue as to his credibility…”

So we are left to speculate as to how this accident could have possibly occurred. The plaintiff didn’t claim that the scaffolding was defective. But we do know a thing or two about physics – namely, that an object at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. But what force could have possibly acted on the scaffold? Perhaps the worker was attempting to move the scaffold by pushing against the wall or ceiling – certainly this method would have spared him the effort of climbing down the scaffold, moving it, securing it safely, then climbing back up to continue working (impossible! Workers never take shortcuts!).

The defense argued just that. There IS a triable issue of fact, they claimed – the most logical answer is that the plaintiff caused the accident himself, and basic physics backs that up. The court, however, wouldn’t have it. “The [defendant’s] expert’s conclusion that the scaffold tipped over because plaintiff was trying to move it while remaining on it and by using the wall or ceiling as leverage, is speculative and unsupported by the evidence” (emphasis added).

Yes, that’s right. Newton’s first law of motion, perhaps the most fundamental and well established principle in physics, isn’t good enough for the First Department.

And because of that, the defendants will be held 100% liable. It truly boggles the mind.

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