Construction Accidents–Falls from Heights


Construction accidents in New York are governed by three different sections of the New York Labor Law, 200, 240(1), and 241(6).

The most important section of the Labor Law concerning construction accidents is labor law 240(1).  This is a law that offers special protections for accidents involving falls from heights.  In some  instances this is where objects fall on a worker.  The law also encompasses situations where workers fall from a height.   Known as the “Scaffold Law,” it was passed in 1885 in response to the scores of construction workers who were injured or killed during the construction boom of the late 1800s.

According to labor 240(1), an injured worker can win his or her case on liability (fault) if there is a fall from a height or if something falls on the injured worker.  The legal terminology for this type of a situation is the granting of summary judgment.

If there is a fall from a height, and certain other legal conditions are met, a plaintiff (injured party) can ask a judge to make the legal determination that the accident is 100% the fault of the building owner and general contractor of the construction site.  This is only the case for construction site accidents involving  “gravity related risks” I.e, falling objects or falling workers.  The law also applies to instances where an object falls on a worker, and then the worker falls from a height, such as from a ladder or scaffold.

What exactly is a gravity-related risk is an issue that is litigated in courthouses across the state every day.  The appellate divisions in New York and the New York Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state) have issued rulings on thousands of labor law cases over the years on this very issue.  While this may seem like a simple issue, it is often very complex.  The law applies to falls from ladders, scaffolds, various types of bridges and planks that connect parts of construction sites, as well as many other construction site accident scenarios.

In these types of construction accident cases, contributory negligence is not a defense that is available to the building owner and general contractor.  They are absolutely liable.  The only way that the building owner and general contractor at a construction site can have a defense is if the plaintiff is found to be the “sole proximate cause” of the incident.  In other words, the plaintiff must be entirely to blame for a construction accident or else it is legally considered to be the fault of the owner and generally contractor.

If the lawyer for an injured construction worker moves for summary judgment on the issue of liability and loses, is the case dismissed?

When an injury lawyer in a construction accident case moves for summary judgment on the issue of liability under labor law section 240(1), the lawyer is asking a judge to decide that the accident is 100% the fault of the defendants (the building owner and property manager).

If the lawyer loses this motion, the case is not dismissed.  It simply means that the case will proceed to trial, and the jury will have to assess liability, i.e., whose fault the accident was.  A jury in a construction accident case would have to determine whether the plaintiff was partially or completely to blame for the accident, or whether it was partially or completely the fault of one or all of the defendants.  While not an ideal situation for an injured construction worker, it is does not mean that the case is lost and it’s not a reason for despair.  Another possibility, if a judge does not grant summary judgment to the injured construction worker, is for the injured construction worker’s attorney to appeal the judge’s decision.  This gives the construction accident attorney a second chance.  A panel of appeals court judges reviews the decision of the lower court judge.  If the appellate panel disagrees with the ruling, it can overrule the judge of the lower court.

What happens if the lawyer for an injured construction moves for summary judgment on the issue of liability and wins?  This is the best possible outcome for a worker who has been injured in a construction site accident.  This means that the judge has determined that the accident is 100% the fault of the defendants, and that a trial would only be on the issue of damages, i.e., how much is the case worth.  The other positive result of a winning summary judgment decision in a construction accident case is that statutory interest that the plaintiff will pay on a potential judgment starts to run from the moment the decision is issued.

For example, assume that summary judgment is granted to a worker who had been severely injured when he fell off a scaffold.  Due to the glacial pace of the justice system, the case does not reach a trial on damages for another 2 years.  At the trial on damages for this injured construction worker, the jury awards $1 Million dollars.  In addition to the $1 Million dollars, the injured construction worker would also be entitled to 9% compounded annually.  In other words, he would be entitled to $1,188,100.  Because of this potential to pay interest, insurance companies often begin to talk settlement once a summary judgment motion is granted.

Of course, if a construction accident injury victim wins on summary judgment, this decision can also be appealed by the lawyers for the insurance companies.

As you can see, it is in the best interests of those injured in construction accidents to win summary judgment on liability for their construction site accident lawsuits. Whether or not an accident at a construction site fits the definition of a “gravity related risk” and is a candidate for a summary judgment motion is a very fact specific inquiry that only an experienced construction site lawyer can handle.  I have read about cases where inexperienced lawyers proceeded with a construction accident lawsuit without even attempting to win summary judgment on liability.  This can have disastrous consequences for the case end result in an injured working getting substantially less money than he or she should.  My goal as a construction accident lawyer, is to get my clients as much money as possible for their construction site injuries and I always at least attempt to win summary judgment on these types of cases.

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About Matthew Haicken

I have been practicing personal injury and insurance law since my graduation from law school in 2007. In addition to years as a practicing lawyer, I also spent three years working at a large insurance company where I worked with excellent lawyers from around the country. This experience has proven invaluable. I gained insight into how insurance companies evaluate claims, and I learned the tactics they employ to fight personal injury lawsuits. I enjoy helping people through difficult situations and making a positive impact on the lives of my clients. When not practicing law, I am actively involved in NYSTLA, the New York State Trial Lawyers Association. We are a group that lobbies on behalf of injury victims. I believe the courthouse doors should be open to everyone, regardless of his or her immigration status, or financial situation. I am committed to fighting for a strong civil justice system that enables people who have been harmed to hold wrongdoers accountable.

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