Cornell Grace Wins Summary Judgment In A-frame Ladder Case – Plaintiff’s Sole Proximate Cause June 27, 2016

Cornell Grace, P.C., in representing its client the New York City School Construction Authority (“SCA”), has won a rare dismissal of a plaintiff’s Labor Law claims based on the “sole proximate cause” defense.

In 2014, Ronald Gillett, a union carpenter, brought suit against the SCA, et al., arising out of his fall from an A-frame ladder. Mr. Gillett admitted that he had been using the ladder in the “closed” position, leaning against the wall, which is a universally known, dangerous misuse of an A-frame stepladder.

Due to the application of New York State Labor Law Section 240(1) (the “scaffold law”), cases involving workers falling from ladders at a construction site have long been thought of as nearly “automatic” liability cases in New York state courts. Plaintiff’s sole proximate cause is essentially the only defense to such a claim, but summary dismissal in favor of Defendants is very rarely granted. The courts tend to be extremely reluctant to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims outright.
Here, Mr. Gillett claimed, via an expert’s affidavit, that he had been unable to use the ladder in the proper, “open” position, because his work area was “too small.” Defendants, however, had submitted an expert’s affidavit containing precise measurements and details establishing that the ladder could have been opened by placing it partially through the doorway over which plaintiff had been installing sheetrock. Justice Kevin J. Kerrigan of the Queens Supreme Court held that Defendants had made out a case for dismissal, and that plaintiff had failed to raise a triable issue of fact. The Judge therefore dismissed the case, absolving the SCA and our other clients of any responsibility for plaintiff’s accident. Plaintiff, of course, was able to recover Workers’ Compensation

Historically, courts have flatly refused to even consider plaintiffs’ conduct in setting up or placing ladders, holding that “proper placement” is the statutory responsibility of the owner/GC. Defendants have long argued that this position ignores the practical reality, which is that workers almost always set up and “place” their own ladders and therefore are the ones with the opportunity to do so safely. Indeed, workers are generally required to undergo specific training on the proper “set-up” of ladders.

It appears that state court Justices, particularly in the Second Department but also elsewhere, may be showing an increased willingness to place a basic level of responsibility on the worker for his own safety when setting up and placing a ladder, and to dismiss claims in which workers fail to do so and then still seek to recover beyond their Workers’ Compensation benefits. See Scofield v. Avante Contracting Corp., 135 A.D.3d 929 (2d Dep’t 2016).

A copy of the Court’s decision in Gillett v. City of New York, et al., can be found here:

Gillett Summary Judgment Decision

Cornell Grace Wins Summary Judgment In A-frame Ladder Case – Plaintiff’s Sole Proximate Cause

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