In a recent decision involving a construction worker who fell off a ladder, an appellate court in New York City carefully explained why the laws protecting workers are necessary, while also illuminating how reforming these laws will jeopardize worker safety.
The unanimous decision in DeRose v. Bloomingdale’s was written by Justice Rolando Acosta and published in The New York Law Journal this week. The New York Law Journal also published an article on the decision. So what Is the case about and why is this decision worth reading?
The accident happened in September 2010 . The plaintiff was working for a general contractor that was hired to renovate a Bloomingdale’s store. It is essential to note that the store remained open during the renovation. On the day of the accident the plaintiff’s supervisor told him to dismantle a temporary wall inside of the store. The plaintiff began to retrieve a movable scaffold to accomplish the work. However, his boss told him that he could not use the scaffold, alerting him that the store prohibited moving equipment around the store in front of customers. Instead, the boss ordered the plaintiff to use a wooden ladder. The ladder, described as “rickety,” gave out while the plaintiff was standing on it, causing the plaintiff to fall to the ground and injure himself
The Plaintiff brought a lawsuit under the auspices of New York’s much discussed Scaffold Law, a worker safety statute that requires developers, owners and general contractors to provide people a safe working environment. The law holds developers, owners and general contractors strictly liable if they fail to provide a safe working environment and a worker sustains a gravity related injury as a result of those failures. The law, Labor Law 240, is often referred to as “The Scaffold Law.” The theory behind the Scaffold Law is to place responsibility for safety on the groups that have the power and ability to control how the work is being performed.
Here, plaintiff claimed that the ladder he was given was not safe and that the scaffold was the appropriate safety device for the work he was being asked to perform. Consequently, he argues that the law was violated because he was forced to labor at a height on an unsafe and inappropriate safety device for the task at hand. The scaffold, on the other hand, was the appropriate safety device for him to tackle his assignment, he claimed. Thus, the defendants failure to comply with the statute was a cause of his injury, triggering liability for the defendants. There was a consensus among the parties that the scaffold was the appropriate device for the job. Still, the defendants sought to blame the worker, claiming that he was not careful in using the rickety ladder and suggesting that he should have pressed his boss to allow him to use the scaffold. This lead to a real life discussion about the implications of this argument.
The Appellate Division employed strong language in renouncing the defense, taking a pragmatic stance in outlining the frailties of the worker’s predicament.
“The Labor Law, recognizing the realities of construction and demolition work, does not require a worker to demand an adequate safety device by challenging his or her supervisor’s instructions and withstanding hostile behavior. To place that burden on employees would effectively eviscerate the protections that the legislature put in place. Indeed, workers would be placed in a nearly impossible position if they were required to demand adequate safety devices from their employers or the owners of buildings on which they work.”
The Court succinctly outlined the very sound policy reasons behind the laws that protect workers and, perhaps unintentionally, hinted at how a watering down of the worker safety laws would change the dynamic between worker and management. Imagine a paradigm where the law essentially required employees to question the authority of their bosses. Practically speaking, the workers that questioned authority would be punished and those that blindly followed the orders of management would get more work, yet be exposed to greater peril. Talk about placing an individual in a challenging position. If you want to pay your rent and put food on the table, follow orders and never question authority. However, that comes with a price in that you will potentially be in danger every day you show up to work. Bottom Line: No worker should have to worry about whether they are going to make it home to see their family every day.
Block O’Toole & Murphy is a law firm that prides itself on fighting on behalf of injured construction workers. They understand how a work-related injury can decimate a family – – just look at some of the work they have done on behalf of injured workers. The lawyers have more than $750,000,000 in verdicts and settlements. Want to learn more about this team of fighters? See the firm website at www.blockotoole.com. For a free consultation call them at 212.736.5300.