Twenty-four years ago, in Ross v. Curtis-Palmer Hydro-Electric Co., 81 N.Y.2d 494 (1993), the Court of Appeals articulated important limitations on the scope and applicability of Labor Law § 240. Ross involved an injured welder who alleged that in order to avoid falling off a platform and down a 50-foot shaft, he had to continuously contort his body in an awkward position for several hours causing him to sustain serious injuries to his back. In dismissing Plaintiff’s Labor Law § 240 claim, the Court of Appeals held the statute applied only where a 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.” This key phrase would later be cited by the Court of Appeals in Runner v. New York Stock Exchange, Inc., 13 N.Y.3d 599 (2009). In Runner, the injured plaintiff was tasked with moving an 800lb. reel of cable down a short staircase by tying a rope around the reel and wrapping it around a metal bar that was placed against the door jam, creating a makeshift pulley. As he attempted to lower the reel down the stairs, plaintiff was pulled forward into the metal bar by the descending weight of the reel, suffering injuries to his hands. In holding that the accident fell within the purview of Labor Law § 240 regardless of the fact the reel did not actually strike the plaintiff, the Court, citing Ross, stated, “[t]he relevant inquiry, one which may be answered in the affirmative even in situations where the object does not fall on the worker, [is] whether the harm flows directly from the application of the force of gravity to the object.” Accordingly, while the Court’s decision in Runner did not specifically address repetitive-stress-type injuries under Labor Law §240, the broad holding issued seemingly left open the possibility that a repetitive-stress injury may be covered by the statute if it resulted from the direct “application of the force of gravity to [an] object” rather than as a consequence of cramped working conditions like those at issue in Ross.
In the recent decision of Ciechorski v. City of New York, 2017 NY Slip Op. 06891 (1st Dept, 2017)(decided on October 3, 2017), however, the First Department dismissed the Labor Law § 240 claim of a worker who alleged he sustained serious injuries to his shoulder “caused by his repeated work, over the course of weeks, of being handed heavy buckets filled with epoxy from workers at a higher level.” Plaintiff alleged his injury resulted from repetitive exposure to the unchecked force of gravity exerted on heavy buckets filled with epoxy and that no safety devices, such as a pulley or lift, were furnished to protect against the gravity-related risk. But the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument and dismissed his Labor Law § 240 claim, holding that plaintiff was at most “exposed to the usual and ordinary dangers of a construction site, and not the extraordinary elevation risks envisioned by Labor Law § 240(1)…” The Ciechorski decision is significant because it seemingly eschews a literal application of Runner to avoid expanding liability under Labor Law §240 to include ordinary repetitive-stress injuries that merely have some tangential relationship to a gravity-related mechanism of injury. While the facts of Ciechorski are unique and may ultimately be distinguished by future cases, for the time being it appears that repetitive stress injuries are still not covered under Labor Law § 240.
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