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WRONGFUL DEATH

An elevator maintenance company was called to the premises to investigate the cause of some burnt wires which had put one of the building's elevator out of service. The company sent a worker and his supervisor to identify the malfunction and repair the elevator. During their second day of work, it became necessary for the worker to go down to the 10th floor of the premises to manually move the elevator's car up and down for testing purposes, once his supervisor brought the car down to him. Decedent was later found dead in the elevator pit below the 10th floor. It is not clear what exactly happened. The supervisor testified that, while the company typically provided barricades for set up in front of open elevator shafts, to prevent employees from falling into them, no barricades were in place at the accident location on the day of the accident.

Since workers’ compensation barred the action against the employer, the decedent’s wife filed a suit against the building owner to recover for the wrongful death of her husband. Plaintiff asserted that defendant violated Labor Law § 240 (1). Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment dismissing the claim.

The lower court explained that Labor Law § 240 (1) was designed to prevent those types of accidents in which the scaffold or other protective device proved inadequate to shield the injured worker from harm directly flowing from the application of the force of gravity to an object or person. The liability is contingent upon the existence of a hazard contemplated in section 240 (1) and the failure to use, or the inadequacy of a safety device. To prevail on a 

 

section 240 (1) claim, the plaintiff must show that the statute was violated and that this violation was a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries.

Initially, the crux of this case involved the issue of whether the work that decedent was performing at the time of the accident was a repair, which is covered by Labor Law § 240 (1), or routine maintenance, which is not.

In distinguishing between what constitutes repair as opposed to routine maintenance, courts consider such factors as whether the work in question was occasioned by an isolated event as opposed to a recurring condition; whether the object being replaced was 'a worn-out component' in something that was otherwise 'operable'; and whether the device or component that was being fixed or replaced was intended to have a limited life span or to require periodic adjustment or replacement.

 

The lower court held that the work that decedent was performing at the time of the accident constituted repair work and thus fell within the purview of Labor Law § 240 (1).

Defendant argued that the decedent’s action was the sole proximate cause of his accident since the supervisor testified that there was no reason for decedent to enter the shaft in order to locate the position of the elevator's car.

The lower court pointed out, however, that there were no witnesses to the accident and it was unclear as to whether any negligence on the part of decedent proximately caused the accident. The court reasoned that duty to see that safety devices are furnished and employed rests on the employer in the first instance. In any event, however, the lower court pointed out that comparative fault is not a defense to a Labor Law § 240 (1) cause of action, because the statute imposes absolute liability once a violation is established.

Further, there was no evidence in the record to indicate that decedent was given any specific instruction to use a harness or a safety line, nor was he ever offered any other safety devices which he refused to utilize.

 

Therefore, the lower court denied defendant’s summary judgment dismissing the Labor Law § 240 (1) cause of action. Defendant appealed.

 

On appeal, the First Department affirmed the lower court’s decision. The First Department held that this action, which involved decedent elevator mechanic falling to his death down an unguarded elevator shaftway, was covered by the protections of Labor Law 240 (1). In addition, defendant could not rely upon the defense of sole proximate cause, since they failed to provide adequate safety devices in the first instance.

Accordingly, the First Department did not dismiss the case and sent it to further proceedings.