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State’s Highest Court Upholds Appellate Decision Securing Plant’s Motion to Dismiss

Case Study

State’s Highest Court Upholds Appellate Decision Securing Plant’s Motion to Dismiss

January 18, 2024
James M. Specyal

New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, has affirmed the dismissal of a hotly contested labor-law action defended by James M. Specyal, an attorney in Goldberg Segalla’s Appellate and Civil Litigation and Trial practice groups.

The court’s 6-1 ruling in favor of our firm’s client upholds an Appellate Division, Fourth Department, decision also secured by James in late 2022.

The lawsuit stemmed from a claim by a plaintiff injured on the premises of a recycling plant while installing an air tank on a flatbed trailer’s brake system. While performing the work, he used a front-end loader to lift the trailer, only to have the loader roll backward, dropping the trailer onto him. Left trapped for five hours, he suffered serious leg injuries.

The plaintiff, who sued to recover damages for his injuries, argued he was entitled to the strict liability protections under Labor Law 240 since he was involved in the repair of a “structure” — a broadly defined term by New York courts.

Specifically, the plaintiff contended he was engaged in a protected activity because the replacement of the air tank constituted a “repair,” and was an enumerated activity within the labor law statute. He also maintained the flatbed trailer was “a production, or piece of work artificially built up, or composed of parts,” and, therefore, was a “structure” within the meaning of labor law.

In waging a zealous defense on behalf of our client, James argued successfully the trailer was not a “structure” but a “vehicle” as defined under New York’s Vehicle and Traffic law, and that Labor Law 240 did not serve to protect workers involved in vehicle repair. Thus, the plaintiff’s injury occurred during activity not protected within state labor law, and as such, the firm’s client should not be held liable.

James also argued successfully that even if the plaintiff’s labor constituted repair work, it was not covered under labor law because “vehicle repair work” outside a construction context in this case is not the type of work the statute was designed to address. There was no construction taking place on the plant’s premises at the time of the accident.

In perhaps a case of foreshadowing of the high court’s ultimate decision, James said in his arguments before the Fourth Department that finding the plaintiff’s repair work to be covered by Labor Law statute would run contrary to previous rulings by the Court of Appeals.

The initial ruling in the case was handed down in state Supreme Court, Chautauqua County.