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Will recent court opinion place new limits on Scaffold Law?

According to a recent, yep sharply divided, opinion issued by the New York Court of Appeals -- the state's highest court -- employers may not be automatically liable for injuries when construction workers suffer falls on the worksite.

Many opponents of this recent ruling, including three judges on the court who filed their own dissenting opinion, believe this holding is incorrect and contrary to decades of legal precedent interpreting New York's Scaffolding Law (Labor Law §240). For those who do not know, the Scaffolding Law is the statute that typically holds general contractors and property owners responsible for providing workers with proper safety equipment when working at great heights.

Details of the case

This particular case, otherwise known as O'Brien v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, stems from an incident in which a construction worker slipped and fell down a wet, temporary metal staircase, which the court notes was technically a temporary scaffold.

In its 4-3 ruling, the Court of Appeals ultimately reversed a lower court's decision to grant the injured construction worker summary judgment because it determined that "triable issues of fact" existed -- which is just the legal way of saying the injured construction worker came out on the losing end of this decision.

However, not all of the judges agreed with this holding, which the dissenting opinion made quite clear. In fact, the dissenting opinion went as far as to say that the majority opinion "reflects a misunderstanding of the legislative intent and statutory mandates" of New York's Scaffolding Law.

Citing established New York case law, the dissenting opinion went on to say, that the Scaffolding Law "places ultimate responsibility for safety practices at construction sites on the property owner and general contractor." Furthermore, this law "embodies the Legislature's intent to protect workers by placing ultimate responsibility for safety practices at building construction jobs where such responsibility actually belongs, on the owner and general contractor, instead of on workers, who are scarcely in a position to protect themselves from accident."

Sadly for the injured construction worker, the majority of the court did agree with the dissenting judges. As for this case's long-term impact, we will just have to wait and see whether it affects how courts impose liability following on-the-job injuries caused by inadequate scaffolding/safety equipment.

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