The Expansion of Labor Law §240(1) in Runner v. New York Stock Exchange

By Robert Rigolosi

Plaintiff was injured when he and his co-workers were moving an 800 pound reel down a set of stairs at the New York Stock Exchange. Plaintiff and his co-workers were instructed to create a makeshift pulley system, whereby they used a rope to lower the reel down the steps. The accident occurred when the plaintiff, while holding the rope at the top of the steps, was drawn forward into a metal bar that was part of the makeshift pulley system.

A jury in the SDNY was instructed that liability under §240(1) should be found if plaintiff’s injuries were attributed to a gravity related-risk.  The jury determined there was no gravity related-risk and found for the defendants.  The Court granted plaintiff’s motion to set aside the verdict, finding that the stairs presented a gravity-related risk; that adequate safety devices had not been utilized; and that plaintiff’s injuries were caused by the lack of safety devices.

The Defendant appealed, and the Second Circuit certified the following questions to New York’s Court of Appeals:

  1. Where a worker who is serving as a counterweight on a makeshift pulley is dragged into the pulley mechanism after a heavy object on the other side of a pulley rapidly descends a small set of stairs, causing an injury to plaintiff’s hand, is the injury (a) an elevation related injury, and (b) directly caused by the effects of gravity, such that section 240(1) of New York’s Labor Law applies?
  2. If an injury stems from neither a falling worker nor a falling object that strikes a plaintiff, does liability exist under section 240(1) of New York’s Labor Law?”

The Court of Appeals reframed the question, stating that “the single decisive question is whether plaintiff's injuries were the direct consequence of a failure to provide adequate protection against a risk arising from a physically significant elevation differential.”  The Court of Appeals answered this question affirmatively - that plaintiff had not been provided with the proper protection for this work.

Defendants had argued that, in order for plaintiff’s injury to be a gravity related injury, “gravity must operate directly upon either the plaintiff or upon an object falling upon the plaintiff.”  The Court of Appeals ruled that in this instance, the “elevation differential….cannot be viewed as de minimis,” and thus falls within the gravity-related aspect of Labor Law §240(1). 

With this case, The Court of Appeals has expanded the scope Labor Law §240(1) by creating liability when plaintiff did not fall from a height nor was struck by an object.  Under this case, if plaintiff is injured from a height, and defendants did not provide the appropriate protective equipment, defendants can be held liable.