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The Role of Common Law Negligence in New York Construction Accident Lawsuits

The owner or general contractor of a New York construction project can be held liable for a worksite accident under a number of different legal principles. One is what is known as common law negligence. Essentially, the courts have long recognized that a project owner or employer has a basic duty to provide a “safe workplace” for their employees.

The New York legislature codified this duty under Labor Law Section 200. This section confirms that construction projects have a “general duty to protect [the] health and safety of employees.” This duty has two main components. The first is to maintain the work premises itself in a safe condition. The second is that the owner or employer must provide equipment and tools that are safe to use.

Common law negligence under Section 200 is different from other forms of legal liability imposed by New York law. For example, many construction accident lawsuits rely on Section 240, which involve accidents caused by defects in scaffolding or other elevated work platforms. Section 240 imposes strict liability if an owner provides defec

tive scaffolding. In contrast, common-law liability under Section 200 requires the injured worker to prove the following:

  • there was a dangerous condition on the construction site;
  • that dangerous condition caused the worker’s injuries;
  • the owner or general contractor either created the dangerous condition or had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition and failed to take corrective action.

Proving actual or constructive notice can be tricky. Actual notice means the owner or contractor had direct knowledge of the problem and took no action. Constructive notice refers to a situation where the owner or contractor should have known there was a problem. This means the dangerous condition must have existed on the job site for a sufficient enough time that a reasonable party exercising care would have inevitably seen the problem.

Plumbing Foreman Sues Port Authority Over Trip-and-Fall on Rebar Mat

An ongoing New York construction accident lawsuit, Impagliazzo v. Judlau Contracting, Inc., provides a good illustration of how courts assess Section 200 claims. This case involves a trip and fall accident that occurred on a construction site in New York City. The plaintiff worked as a foreman supervisor for a plumbing subcontractor. The general contractor on the project hired the plaintiff’s employer to work on a rehabilitation project in lower Manhattan. The project site itself was owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The accident itself occurred on a layer of steel known as a rebar mat. Workers had installed rebar as a preliminary step towards pouring concrete. On the day in question, a superintendent from the general contractor walked the plaintiff down to this area so he could determine what materials and supplies he needed to lay some pipes. The plaintiff followed the super down a ladder and onto a plywood platform. This platform led to the rebar mat, which was laced with 12-inch studs set 8 inches apart in a grid.

The plaintiff said he had to walk across about 20 feet of this rebar mat to reach his intended destination. As he did so, he slipped and fell. The plaintiff subsequently sued the contractor and the Port Authority, alleging their negligence caused his accident.

As relevant here, the state supreme court judge overseeing the case denied a defense motion for summary judgment on the question of Section 200 common-law negligence. The judge noted that according to the plaintiff’s account of events, the general contractor’s superintendent personally led him to traverse the rebar mat, which suggested the contractor exercised some degree of control over the plaintiff’s work when the accident occurred. This is important, because New York courts have said that one way a worker can establish Section 200 liability for construction accidents is to show the defendant “had the authority to supervise or control the performance of the work” that led to the injury.

The judge also pointed to an expert witness affidavit filed by the plaintiff. This expert is a professional engineer. He stated in his affidavit that in his professional opinion, the defendants violated Section 200 by failing to cover the rebar mat with a “temporary plywood subfloor” or similar safety device that would have prevented the plaintiff’s accident. Of course, the defendants submitted their own expert witness affidavit effectively arguing that such a temporary sub-floor was not necessary. Again, the judge said it would be up to a jury to decide which expert’s opinions were more persuasive and credible.

Contact Powers & Santola, LLP, Today If You Have Been Injured in a Construction Accident

Another key consideration in Section 200 cases is the comparative fault of the plaintiff. That is to say, a project owner or contractor facing a common-law negligence claim may try to argue the injured worker’s own conduct contributed to or essentially caused their accident. In Section 200 cases based on an alleged dangerous condition, a defendant does not have a legal duty to protect workers against any hazard that may be easily observed through the use of ordinary senses. Basically, if the hazard is “open and obvious” enough, it is assumed that a competent worker will take reasonable steps to avoid getting injured. And in certain cases, if the hazardous condition is found to be “inherent” to the nature of the worker’s job, the owner or contractor may be totally absolved of any legal liability for an accident.

This is just a brief explanation of how Section 200 claims can affect construction accident lawsuits in New York. As you can see, this area of law is quite complex. And if you, or someone in your family, has been recently injured on a construction site, it may not be readily apparent what your legal options are for seeking compensation. This is where an experienced Syracuse construction accident lawyer can help.The team at Powers & Santola, LLP, can assist you in seeking workplace injury claims or filing a personal injury lawsuit following a serious construction accident. Call us today at (518) 465-5995 or contact us online to schedule a free case evaluation.

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