New York’s Scaffold Law, Strict Liability, and How to Read a Law

Often in the context of statutes, regulations, and judicial opinions, particular words have particular meanings, which may or may not conform with their everyday usage in common vernacular. The recent appellate case Kharie v. South Shore Record Management, Inc., provides an example of this principle in the context of New York’s Scaffold Act.

scaffold2.jpg“The Scaffold Act” is the colloquial term for Labor Law §240, a New York State law that places a duty on “contractors and owners and their agents” to “furnish or erect” certain safety devices – scaffolds, hoists, ladders, ropes, and the like – for the protection of workers involved in the “erection, demolition, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning or pointing of a building or structure.” In plain English: if employees are elevated above ground laboring on a structure, employers have an affirmative duty to protect them from falls and resulting injuries.

In Kharie, the plaintiff was disassembling large shelves for the defendant. Mr. Kharie was standing on lower shelves, some 12 feet in the air, and physically pulling out the shelves above him, which were held in place in a “tongue and groove” fashion. Clearly this is a difficult maneuver, with the height at which Kharie was working adding to the difficulty. Mr. Kharie fell from the structure and was inured.

Based upon the statutory interpretation of Labor Law 240, it is of no importance that this was an inherently dangerous activity. Nor does it matter that the plaintiff himself was taking it upon himself to perform this work negligently, or willingly took on the dangerous activity. Labor Law § 240 says that any “structure” being “altered” or “demolished” requires the laborers doing that altering or demolishing to be furnished with safety equipment, oftentimes in the form of scaffolding.

The defendants attempted to argue that these shelves were not “structures” within the context of section 240, and that the plaintiff was neither “altering” nor “demolishing” those shelves as the law would understand it. Both the lower court and the appellate court disagreed with this contention, asserting that the Scaffold Actapplied.

So, what is a legal “structure” for the purposes of the Scaffold Act? Simply put, a structure is a physical object “composed of component pieces” that are “attached in a definite manner.” For its part, case law indicates that demolishing can very well include “dismantling,” and altering can encompass making any significant physical change to a structure. Clearly, Mr. Kharei was precariously balancing himself on a structure, and just as clearly he was both altering and demolishing that structure.

Above, we referenced that the Scaffold Law is somewhat controversial in New York. One of the reasons for this is that the Scaffold Law imposes strict liability on contractors and owners. According to the doctrine of strict liability, a plaintiff need not show actual negligence – a deviation from the standard of reasonable care – in an action. In this context, he need show only that the Scaffold Law applied to his case (it did) and that the defendant did not abide by its precepts (it didn’t). In fact, even if Mr. Kharie had been negligent, it would have had no bearing on the outcome of this case. Strict liability in the scaffold law means that contributory negligence by the plaintiff is not a defense.

Contact us if you were injured and you think your employer did not abide by the requirements of the Scaffold Law – you may be entitled to compensation for your injury.

More on the Second Department decision in Kharie can be found here.

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