Labor Law § 240(1) was designed to protect construction workers from unsafe conditions, but plaintiffs’ attorneys often try to have as many claims as possible fall under the strict liability statute. Under Section 240(1), an owner or general contractor faces strict liability when an employee falls from a height while involved “in the erection, demolition, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning or pointing of a building or structure.”
A source of controversy has been the “cleaning” category, as Labor Law claims have been made, for example, by an office cleaning person who falls from a desk while dusting. The Court of Appeals recently recognized that the Labor Law is intended to have a limited scope, and provided a four-factor test under which courts can evaluate whether an activity actually constitutes “cleaning” within the meaning of the Labor Law in Jose A. Soto v. J. Crew, Inc., et. al.
Plaintiff Jose Soto was an employee of a commercial cleaning company that was hired by the clothing store J. Crew to provide janitorial services. Soto was dusting a six-foot high display shelf in the store when he fell from a four-foot tall ladder. Soto brought an action against J. Crew and the owner of the building under Labor Law § 240(1).
The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, ruling that Labor Law § 240(1) does not apply to “routine maintenance,” such as the dusting of a book shelf. The Appellate Division, First Department affirmed the trial court’s decision.
The Court of Appeals began its decision by setting out the current legal landscape in respect of whether particular conduct qualifies as “cleaning” under the Labor Law. The Court discussed its 2012 decision in Dahar v. Holland Ladder & Manufacturing Company (which we examined in a prior post), in which a plaintiff was injured when the ladder he was standing on broke while he was cleaning a seven-foot high wall in a factory. The Court in Dahar ruled that the statue did not extend so far as to protect an injury sustained while cleaning a product in the course of a manufacturing process.
The Court then set out a four-factor test for courts to apply when evaluating whether an activity can properly be characterized as “cleaning” under the Labor Law. The test examines whether a particular task: 1) is routine; 2) requires specialized equipment or expertise; 3) involves elevation risks comparable to typical household maintenance; and 4) aligns with the “core purpose” of the Labor Law which is to protect workers on a construction site.
Applying these factors, the Court found that Soto’s “cleaning” did not fall within the ambit of Labor Law § 240(1), as “[t]he dusting of a six-foot-high display shelf is the type of routine maintenance that occurs frequently in a retail store.” The Court also noted that the elevation-related risks were comparable to that of a homeowner who is performing home maintenance.