New York’s First Department Protects the Sole-Proximate Cause Defense to Labor Law § 240(1) Claims 

By Christopher Parisi

The Appellate Division, First Department, recently reversed a decision which could have hindered the use of the sole-proximate cause defense to Labor Law § 240(1) claims.  In McManus v. City of New York, the First Department reversed the Trial Court’s Order granting summary judgment to plaintiff on his Labor Law § 240(1) claim.

In the underlying Bronx County case, plaintiff Joseph McManus was injured on a jobsite as a result of falling into a deep concrete tank. The opening of the tank had been covered by a baker’s scaffold.  Plaintiff claimed that the tank’s opening was inadequately covered and moved for summary judgment on his Labor Law § 240(1) claim. Defendant City of New York claimed that the tank’s opening was adequately covered until plaintiff moved the scaffold, and alleged that plaintiff was the sole-proximate cause of his fall. 

In granting plaintiff summary judgment, the Trial Court determined that the happening of plaintiff’s accident was evidence of an inadequate safety device, thus entitling plaintiff to relief pursuant to Labor Law § 240(1).  The Trial Court opined: “Whether it was the Plaintiff or someone else that moved the device, this does not take away or change the fact that the device failed to prevent the fall.  Therefore, under either version, liability results under [Labor Law] §240(1), the plaintiff will be entitled to summary judgment.”  The Trial Court further opined “once it is established that the safety device failed, Plaintiff cannot be found to be the sole proximate cause of the injury.” 

In reaching the decision to grant plaintiff summary judgment, the Trial Court failed to analyze the adequacy of the safety device (the “baker’s scaffold”), and further failed to analyze whether plaintiff tampered with an adequate safety device.  As such, defendant City of New York was preempted from fair use of the sole-proximate cause defense.  If the First Department had upheld this the Trial Court’s decision, then the use of the sole-proximate cause defense may have been foreclosed under similar circumstances in future cases.

While the Legislature intended to improve workers’ safety through the enactment of the Labor Laws, it did not intend to provide recovery for injuries caused exclusively by the plaintiffs own negligence.  While comparative negligence is a defense to some Labor Law causes of action, New York Courts have held that it is not a defense to Labor Law § 240(1) claims.  In relation to a Labor Law § 240(1) claim, a defendant asserting the sole-proximate cause defense is saying “we took all proper safety precautions, yet the plaintiff found a way to be the exclusive cause of his or her own injuries.”  If the Court agrees, there will be no recovery pursuant to Labor Law § 240(1).  As such, the sole-proximate cause defense is one of the most important defenses available when a plaintiff brings a claim pursuant to Labor Law § 240(1).