The Geneva Finger Lakes Times reports today that a construction worker fell 12 feet through an unfinished stairway of a house under construction in Yates County, New York yesterday, and landed on the gravel basement floor below. The worker, of Geneva, was brought by Mercy Flight to Strong Memorial Hospital with head and internal injuries.
We wish the best for the injured worker and his family. Twelve feet does not sound like a lot, but I know from representing construction workers in similar falls that, when you are caught off-guard by it, a 12-foot fall is huge.
In these blogs, I try to apply New York Accident law to facts gleamed from local news reports. The question I want to address here is, does the injured worker have a New York construction injury case? The answer is: It depends.
New York State has a very special law that protects construction workers from falls from heights. The law is called Labor law 240, also known as “the scaffold law”. I blogged about New York’s Labor Law 240 recently. Labor Law 240 is a “strict liability” law, meaning that the injured construction worker does not have to prove that anyone was NEGLIGENT; all he has to prove, generally, is that he fell because he was not provided with proper equipment to protect him from falling, or that the scaffold or ladder he was on failed to support him. If he can prove that, he wins, even if he himself was partly, or even mostly, to blame for the fall. In fact, the only way he can lose, generally, is if he is 100% to blame.
In this case the injured construction worker fell through an unfinished stairway, which is usually a slam-dunk construction accident case. The owner, general contractor, and perhaps others are going to be liable because there was no barrier or other safety device to prevent the worker from falling through the unfinished stairway. Either the opening should have been barricaded off, or the worker should have been somehow tied up to prevent the fall.
But there’s a hitch. He was building a HOME. There is an exception to Labor Law 240 liability for one or two-family homes. The automatic liability of Labor Law 240 does not apply as to homeowners, except if the home is being used, or was going to be used, for a commercial purpose, or if the homeowner was directing and controling the work. The one or two-family home exception is meant to protect ordinary homeowners from the harsh, strict liability of the scaffold law (Labor law 240).
On the other hand, the general contractor, and perhaps others, can be held liable under Labor Law 240 even if the worker fell while building a home. The law cuts a break only to the homeowner, not to anyone else.
Bottom line: the construction worker probably has a “scaffold law” (Labor Law 240) strict liability case against the general contractor and others, but not against the homeowner, unless the homeowner was intending to use the “home” for a commercial purpose.