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Be Helpful at Your Own Peril

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  • Posted on: Oct 20 2017

Certain provisions of New York’s Labor Law require that construction workers be provided with a safe work environment.  Contractors and owners can be held strictly liable under certain circumstances if a construction worker is injured while working on a construction project.  Such strict liability may apply to homeowners if they become too helpful or involved with construction and, therefore, render inapplicable the exceptions inserted into the Labor Law for their protection.

Villafane v. Ridge Electric Corp. (here), decided on October 2, 2017, in New York Supreme Court, Kings County, illustrates relevant issues concerning New York’s Labor Law.

The plaintiff in Villafane was injured using a grinder provided by his employer, Ridge Electric Corporation (“Ridge”), while working at a two-family home.  While it is not clear from the decision, it appears that plaintiff’s position is that the grinder that caused the injury was either being hoisted at the time of the injury or otherwise should have been secured to be used safely.  The Villafane plaintiff sued Ridge and the homeowners under, inter alia, the following provisions of the Labor Law:[1]

  1. Labor Law §240(1) – requires that “…contractors and owners and their agents … in the erection, demolition, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning or pointing of a building or structure shall furnish or erect, or cause to be furnished or erected for the performance of such labor scaffolding, hoists stays, ladders, slings, hangers, blocks, pulleys, braces, irons, ropes and other devices which shall be so constructed, placed and operated as to give proper protection to a person so employed….” This provision is designed to protect against injuries from elevation related risks.
  2. Labor Law 241(6) – requires that “[a]ll contractors and owners and their agents … when constructing or demolishing buildings or doing any excavating …” shall see to it that “[a]ll areas in which construction, excavation or demolition work is being performed shall be so constructed, shored, equipped, guarded, arranged, operated and conducted as to provide reasonable and adequate protection and safety to the persons employed therein or lawfully frequenting such places….”

To find liability under §240(1), there must be a violation of that statute that was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.  According to the Villafane court, liability under §240(1) can occur not only when injury results from a falling object in the process of being hoisted or secured, but also where the object “was a load that required securing for the purposes of the undertaking at the time it fell.”

Similarly, §241(6) requires contractors and owners to provide a safe work environment to construction workers complying with rules and regulations promulgated by the Commissioner of the Department of Labor.  According to the Villafane court, the “[t]o establish liability pursuant to Labor Law §241(6), plaintiff must plead and prove that a specific violation of the Industrial Code was the proximate cause of [the] accident.”  In Villafane, the plaintiff alleged a violation of the rules regarding the use of ladders.

Both Labor Law §§240 and 241 contain an exception that protects the owners of one and two-family homes from liability if they “contract for but do not direct or control the work” being performed.  According to the Villafane court, “[t]he homeowner’s exemption was enacted to protect owners of one and two-family dwellings who are not in a position to realize, understand, and insure against the responsibilities of strict liability imposed by Labor Law §§240(1) and 241(6)” (quoting Abdou v. Rampaul, 147 A.D.3d 1047 (2nd Dep’t 2013)).

The critical issue before the Villafane court on the decided motion, was the applicability of the homeowner exception.  The Villafane court determined that the exception was applicable and granted summary judgment to the homeowner defendants.  The homeowners demonstrated that the work was conducted in a one to two-family dwelling, thus satisfying the first prong of the statutory test.

To satisfy the second prong, the Villafane homeowner defendants were required to demonstrate that they did not direct or control the work.  According to the Villafane court, “[t]he statutory phrase ‘direct or control’ is construed strictly and refers to situations where the owner supervises the method and manner of the work.”

In Villafane, there was deposition testimony, inter alia, that: the only direction received from the homeowner was the location of the fixtures and outlets that were to be installed, to protect the floors and to keep the home neat; neither the grinder nor any other tools used to perform the work were provided by the homeowner defendants; and, the homeowner defendants did not provide instructions to the contractor or his workers on the manner, method or means to be used in performing the work.  Based on the deposition testimony, the Villafane court found that the homeowner defendants did not control or supervise the work.  Accordingly, the Villafane court found the homeowner defendants satisfied the second prong of the statutory test.  Having demonstrated the applicability of the homeowner exemption, the burden shifted to the plaintiff to raise a triable issue of fact – which he could not due.  Thus, summary judgment was granted to the homeowner defendants.[1]

TAKEAWAY

Owners of one or two-family homes should be aware that, under certain circumstances, they may be held strictly liable for the injury to construction workers at their homes.  To minimize the potential for liability, a homeowner should:

  1. resist the urge to direct the contractor or its workers in the manner, means and methods of their work;
  2. make sure that any dangerous condition created by the contractor is removed promptly upon learning of same;
  3. eliminate any conditions in the home that could put workers at risk; and,
  4. refuse to permit the contractor or its workers to use the homeowner’s tools or equipment.

[1] There are other provisions of Labor Law §§ 240 and 241 that were not asserted in Villafane.

[2] The Villafane court also discussed Labor Law §200, which codified the common law duty of homeowners and contractors to provide workers with a safe workplace. The court recognized that a homeowner can be found liable for a violation of Labor Law §200 if injuries to a construction worker were caused by the condition of the premises and the homeowner created or had actual knowledge of a dangerous condition created by the contractor.

 

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