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Morton v. State

New York Court of Appeals

June 8, 2010

Alan Morton et al., Appellants,
State of New York, Respondent.

Brian J. Isaac, for appellants.

Victor Paladino, for respondent.


Claimant Alan Morton was injured on the morning of April 3, 1997 while working for his employer, New York Water Service Corporation (the water company), a private company that furnishes water to portions of Nassau County. On that date, he was a member of a four-person work crew, including a foreman, dispatched with a backhoe to fix a break reported in a company-owned water main installed in 1928 beneath Carman Mill Road, Massapequa, New York, a part of the State of New York's highway system (see Highway Law § 341 [29] [1]).

Upon arrival at the job site, the work crew notified affected customers and shut off water service, excavated test holes to pinpoint the leak's origin, and placed traffic cones to alert motorists to the presence of the backhoe, which occupied a portion of the northbound travel lane. Using the backhoe and shovels, the crew dug up blacktop in the roadbed and created a hole or trench, exposing the 12-inch water main buried several feet underground. When claimant climbed down into this trench to clean around the main and apply a repair clamp, a side wall caved in, burying his right leg and foot.

In June 1997, claimant, with his wife suing derivatively, brought this action against the State. He asserted common-law negligence and violations of Labor Law §§ 200, 240 and 241 (6), and sought $5.5 million in damages. In 2002, claimant moved for partial summary judgment as to liability on his Labor Law § 241 (6) and negligence claims. He premised liability in the former on violation of Industrial Code Rule 23 (12 NYCRR subpart 23-4), which requires banked or sloped sides (12 NYCRR 23-4.2 [a]) or "sheeting, shoring and bracing" (12 NYCRR 23-4.4 [a]) of excavations that are five feet or more deep. The State opposed the motion and cross-moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint.

The State argued that it was not liable under Labor Law § 241 (6) because the water company failed to obtain a work permit from the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT), as mandated by Highway Law § 52, prior to repairing the water main, which was situated within the State highway right-of-way. Section 52 provides that

"[e]xcept in connection with the construction, reconstruction, maintenance or improvement of a state highway, no person, firm, corporation, municipality, or state department or agency shall... lay or maintain [within the State highway right-of-way] underground wires or conduits or drainage, sewer or water pipes, except in accordance with the terms and conditions of a work permit issued by the commissioner of transportation" (see also Vehicle and Traffic Law

§ 1220-c ["[e]xcept in connection with the construction, reconstruction, maintenance, or improvement of a state highway, no person shall work on a state highway without a work permit issued by the state commissioner of transportation"]; 17 NYCRR 126.2 [a], [b] [a work permit must be secured "to temporarily obstruct or to install, construct, maintain or operate any facilities within the bounds of a State highway right-of-way, " including "excavating... or work of a like nature under, or over or along the highway"]).

By decision and order dated October 21, 2002, the Court of Claims dismissed claimant's negligence claims because the State lacked actual or constructive notice of any dangerous condition and did not exercise supervision or control over the worksite. The court also denied claimant's motion and the State's cross motion for summary judgment on the Labor Law § 241 (6) claim. The judge concluded that Highway Law § 52 did not insulate the State from liability under Labor Law § 241 (6) because this provision "imposed a nondelegable duty upon 'owners' to provide reasonable and adequate protection and safety to persons employed in excavation work regardless of the absence of control, supervision or direction of the work." He did find, however, that material questions of fact existed as to soil composition and the excavation's depth, which implicated the applicability of the Industrial Code sections relied upon by claimant.

After the ensuing nonjury trial, the Court of Claims on April 9, 2003 found that the excavation was not protected by sloped or banked sides or by sheeting, shoring or bracing, and that it was more than five feet deep. The judge decided that claimant had therefore proven violations of sections of the Industrial Code specific enough to support Labor Law § 241 (6) liability; and that these violations proximately caused the accident, and thus contravened the State's nondelegable duty to claimant under Labor Law § 241 (6). The judge also found that the State had not proven claimant's comparative negligence by a preponderance of the credible evidence. Accordingly, on May 7, 2003, an interlocutory judgment determining the State to be negligent and 100% liable for claimant's injuries was entered in the Court of Claims. The State appealed from both the order denying its cross motion for summary judgment on the section 241 (6) claim, and the interlocutory judgment.

In December 2004, the Appellate Division dismissed the State's appeal from the interlocutory judgment as academic; reversed, on the law, the portion of the Court of Claims' order that denied the State's cross motion for summary judgment dismissing the section 241 (6) claim; granted the State summary judgment on and dismissed that claim; and vacated the interlocutory judgment (13 A.D.3d 498');">13 A.D.3d 498 [2d Dept 2004]). Citing Abbatiello v Lancaster Studio Assoc. (3 N.Y.3d 46');">3 N.Y.3d 46, 51 [2004]), the court reasoned that the

"State is not liable... under Labor Law § 241 (6) because the claimant was not within the class of persons afforded protection under the statute. Since [the water company] failed to obtain a highway work permit in violation of state law... [the water company] and the claimant trespassed on the State's property in performing excavation and repairs on the state highway... Since the claimant was performing work without the State's permission or knowledge, he was not a person 'employed' at a work site within the meaning of the Labor Law, which defines such an individual as one 'permitted or suffered to work' (Labor Law § 2 [7])" (13 A.D.3d at 500 [citations omitted]).

We granted claimant permission to appeal, [1] ...

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