N.Y. high court refuses to expand labor law in ruling

Jessica M. Karmasek Feb. 22, 2012, 11:50am


ALBANY, N.Y. (Legal Newsline) - The New York Court of Appeals, in a ruling Tuesday, declined to extend a state labor law "beyond the purposes it was designed to serve."

Plaintiff Michael Dahar was injured when he fell from a ladder in a factory while cleaning a product manufactured by his employer.

In its six-page opinion, the state's highest court said the activity was not protected by New York's Labor Law § 240.

The Court pointed to the facts of the case.

The product in question was a steel "wall module" made by third party defendant West Metal Works Inc. at its plant in Cheektowaga, N.Y. The module was at least seven feet high.

West's customer, defendant Bechtel National Inc., was purchasing it for installation in a nuclear waste treatment plant in Richland, Wash. At the Richland plant, the module was to be attached to a building wall, where it would provide support for pipes.

After the module was fabricated, it had to be cleaned before it was shipped.

Dahar, a West employee, was given the task. He was standing on a ladder provided by West, when, he said, the ladder broke and he fell to the ground.

He later sued several defendants on a number of theories.

Before the Court is his claim under Labor Law § 240 against Bechtel, the purchaser of the wall module, and defendants Warner Martin and Shirley Martin, West's landlords.

Dahar says he was engaged in "cleaning" the wall module, which was a "structure," that the ladder given him failed to provide "proper protection," and that Bechtel and the Martins are subject to the liability imposed on "contractors and owners" because, he says, Bechtel was both a contractor and an owner of the wall module, while the Martins were the owners of the factory in which the accident happened.

Bechtel and the Martins contend they were not "contractors" or "owners."

A state supreme court granted summary judgment dismissing Dahar's claim, and the appellate division affirmed.

As the Court notes, Labor Law § 240 is one of the most frequent sources of litigation in the New York courts, providing rights to certain workers going well beyond the common law.

"As we have long held, it imposes liability even on contractors and owners who had nothing to do with the plaintiff's accident; and where a violation of the statute has caused injury, any fault by the plaintiff contributing to that injury is irrelevant," Judge Robert S. Smith wrote for the Court.

The state Legislature, however, afforded this protection only to workers "employed" in the "erection, demolition, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning or pointing of a building or structure," the Court noted.

Simply put, Dahar's argument is "too simple," Smith said, and would lead to an expansion of section 240's liability that its cases do not support and that it is convinced the Legislature never intended.

"It is apparent from the text of Labor Law § 240, and its history confirms, that its central concern is the dangers that beset workers in the construction industry," Smith wrote.

"It is true that we have rejected the idea that Labor Law § 240 applies only to work performed on construction sites. More specifically, in interpreting the term 'cleaning,' we have held that it is not limited to cleaning that was 'part of a construction, demolition or repair project.'

"We have never, however, gone as far as plaintiff here asks us to go -- to extend the statute to reach a factory employee engaged in cleaning a manufactured product."

Even in window-cleaning cases, the Court said it has not extended the statute's coverage to every activity that might fit within its literal terms.

"Indeed, the logic of plaintiff's argument here would expand the protections of Labor Law § 240 even beyond manufacturing activities; the statute would encompass virtually every 'cleaning' of any 'structure' in the broadest sense of that term," Smith wrote.

"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 plaintiffs."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

More News