Noted Labor Law Attorney in New York Defends Statute at Issue in Recent Death of Crane Rigger Anthony Esposito

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Labor laws in New York State, under constant assault by contractors and developers to weaken them further or repeal them altogether, already provide for limits on owner and general contractor liability under the statute and have been interpreted by appellate courts in favor of employers on numerous occasions recently. Despite significant pressure on the state legislature to repeal the "absolute liability" section of Labor Law 240, an owner or contractor can be held responsible only when the failure to provide proper safety equipment was the cause of the injury.

Labor laws in New York State, under constant assault by contractors and developers to weaken them further or repeal them altogether, already provide for limits on owner and general contractor liability under the statute and have been interpreted by appellate courts in favor of employers on numerous occasions recently*, according to Richard Gurfein, a noted construction worker injury lawyer in New York and past president of The New York State Trial Lawyers Association.

To further compromise the law, which is the only such law remaining on the books in the United States, opponents of sections 240 and 241 of The New York State Labor Law, commonly referred to as the "Safe Place to Work Law," or the "Scaffolding Law," are claiming that these statutes establish an absolute liability standard on any contractor or property owner for a fall from any height by an employee, regardless of fault, and that the law deprives owners and contractors of their right to defend themselves against such claims.

"I know what they've been saying, but it just ain't so," Gurfein fired back. "Despite significant pressure on the state legislature to repeal the "absolute liability" section of Labor Law 240, an owner or contractor can be held responsible only when the failure to provide proper safety equipment was the cause of the injury, and not when the worker's own action was the sole cause of the injury."

The debate over the status of Labor Law 240 heated up recently when a construction worker fell about 400 feet to his death while he and others worked to lower a crane at a building site on the West Side of Manhattan. The worker, Anthony Esposito, 48, a crane rigger, was wearing a safety harness, but it was not attached to anything, according to the New York Buildings Department.

"Construction is a dangerous job," Gurfein said. "State and local governments try to regulate construction sites, but when a worker's choice is between working in unsafe conditions or refusing and getting fired, regulations get ignored.

"With proper safety equipment," he added, workers should not fall off the 48th floor of a building under construction."

Recognized by his peers as a leading personal injury lawyer in New York and an outspoken advocate for workers' rights and safety, Gurfein has seen his share of serious worker injuries in his 30-plus years of private legal practice.

"We are relentless in our pursuit of justice for clients who have been seriously injured as a result of a fall at the work site, especially if the accident was caused by inappropriate or defective equipment, or took place at work site lacking the proper equipment," Gurfein said.

In a recent case, Gurfein represented a union electrician who was assigned the task of drawing wire though a hole in the top of a wall, out of reach of the worker.

"To access the location," Gurfein explained, "our client had to climb on top of existing ductwork. His employer didn't have a ladder so he was told to ask the building custodian for a ladder. The ladder he was given lacked the required non-slip feet and slipped out from under him as he was coming down from the ductwork. He fell 10 feet to the floor, seriously injuring his knee.

"Without the necessary laws in place to protect workers who are injured due to the negligence of their employer, Gurfein added, "our client might not have gotten the relief he needed from the courts, without which he would not have been able to pay his bills, and care for his family, until he was well enough to return to work."

For more information about Labor Law 240 & 241, and for information on what you can do to support laws in New York State that protect worker safety at construction sites visit: LAWYERS WITH AN EDGE.COM, and/or NYSTLA.org, the web site of the New York State Trail Lawyers Association.

  • Ross v. curtis-Palmer Hydro-Electric Co. 81 N.Y.2d 494; Rocovich v. Consollidated Edison Co. 78 N.Y.2d 509.

Both of these cases (one in 1991 the second in 1993) restricted the "scaffold law" to height related events where gravity caused the accident as opposed to some defect in the device. For example, in Ross a welder had to twist in an unusual manner to weld something at the top of the scaffold and sustained a bad back strain. Since his injury wasn't related to a height differential, the "scaffold law" section 240(1) didn't apply.

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Richard Gurfein

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