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Miranda v. Norstar Building Corp.

October 28, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garry, J.


Calendar Date: September 8, 2010

Before: Peters, J.P., Rose, Lahtinen, McCarthy and Garry, JJ.

(1) Cross appeals from an order of the Supreme Court (Giardino, J.), entered September 1, 2009 in Saratoga County, which, among other things, denied a motion by defendant Pinnacle Roofing, Inc. for summary judgment on its indemnity claims against third-party defendant, and (2) appeal from an order of said court, entered December 11, 2009 in Saratoga County, which, among other things, upon reargument, granted plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability pursuant to Labor Law § 240 (1).

Plaintiff sustained a traumatic brain injury when he fell approximately 30 feet from a roof while working on a construction project in the City of Albany. Plaintiff's parents, acting as his guardians pursuant to Mental Hygiene Law article 81, commenced this action on his behalf alleging common-law negligence and violations of Labor Law §§ 200, 240 (1), and § 241 (6). Defendants are: the owners, Swan Street Homes, LLC and Swan Street Housing Development Fund Corporation; the general contractor, Norstar Building Corporation (hereinafter NBC); the project manager, Norstar Development USA, L.P. (hereinafter NDLP); Albany Housing Authority, which oversaw the project; and the roofing subcontractor, Pinnacle Roofing, Inc. NBC, NDLP and the Albany Housing Authority (hereinafter collectively referred to as the Norstar defendants) and Pinnacle then commenced a third-party action against plaintiff's employer, John Russo.

Plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability pursuant to Labor Law § 240 (1). The Norstar defendants moved for summary judgment on their contractual and common-law indemnification claims against Pinnacle and Russo. Pinnacle moved for summary judgment on its third-party claims for common-law and contractual indemnification, and Russo cross-moved for summary judgment dismissing all third-party common-law indemnification claims and the Norstar defendants' contractual indemnification claim. Supreme Court denied all of the requested relief, and all moving parties appealed. Plaintiff, the Norstar defendants, and Pinnacle also sought leave to reargue. Supreme Court granted plaintiff's reargument motion and awarded him partial summary judgment on the issue of liability under Labor Law § 240 (1). The Norstar defendants, Pinnacle, and Russo appeal from that order.

First addressing the challenge to the award of summary judgment to plaintiff on his Labor Law § 240 (1) claim, the parties agree that the only fall protection method in use at plaintiff's rooftop job site was a safety monitoring system, alleged to be widely accepted in the construction industry, in which a designated safety monitor -- here, Russo -- was assigned the task of watching other workers and warning them when they approached a roof edge or other fall hazard. At the time of his fall, plaintiff was installing a roof membrane, a task that necessarily required him to work within inches of the edge of the roof. Russo testified that when he saw plaintiff and a coworker approaching the rim, he warned them to "watch the edge." Seconds later, he saw plaintiff slip off the roof. Supreme Court concluded, upon reargument, that this monitoring system did not constitute a safety device within the meaning of Labor Law § 240 (1) and that the failure to provide such a device was the proximate cause of plaintiff's accident. The Norstar defendants, Pinnacle, and Russo contend that safety monitoring systems are approved by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (hereinafter OSHA), that such a system was the only appropriate fall protection for the small, low-slope roof where plaintiff was working, and that the system does constitute a safety device within the meaning of the statute.

Labor Law § 240 (1) makes contractors and owners strictly liable for failing to provide construction workers who are exposed to elevation-related hazards with "scaffolding, hoists, stays, ladders, slings, hangers, blocks, pulleys, braces, irons, ropes, and other devices which shall be so constructed, placed and operated as to give proper protection to a person so employed." The statute is to be "liberally construed to effect its purpose of providing protection to workers" (Gilbert v Albany Med. Ctr., 9 AD3d 643, 644 [2004]). In determining whether the safety monitoring system constitutes a "device" within the meaning of this provision, "[o]ur primary consideration . . . is to 'ascertain and give effect to the intention of the Legislature'" (Connery v County of Albany, 73 AD3d 198, 201 [2010], lv denied 15 NY3d 702 [2010], quoting McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 1, Statutes § 92 [a]). "'The legislative intent is to be ascertained from the words and language used, and the statutory language is generally construed according to its natural and most obvious sense, without resorting to an artificial or forced construction'" (Matter of Excellus Health Plan v Serio, 303 AD2d 864, 867 [2003], affd 2 NY3d 166 [2004], quoting McKinney's Cons Laws of NY, Book 1, Statutes § 94). Where, as here, the language to be construed is a general catchall term that follows a list of more specific words, "the precept of ejusdem generis as a construction guide is appropriate -- that is, words constituting general language . . . are not to be given the most expansive meaning possible, but are held to apply only to the same general kind or class as those specifically mentioned" (Team Mktg. USA Corp. v Power Pact, LLC, 41 AD3d 939, 942-943 [2007] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]; see Uribe v Merchants Bank of N.Y., 91 NY2d 336, 340 [1998]).

Applying these principles, we note that "scaffolding, hoists, stays, ladders, slings, hangers, blocks, pulleys, braces, irons, [and] ropes" are tangible objects that protect workers from elevation-related hazards by providing physical support (Labor Law § 240 [1]). By contrast, a safety monitoring system does not provide any physical support or protection.*fn1 As Russo testified, "I can't prevent someone from slipping off the roof." We find that, as a matter of construction, a person acting as a safety monitor is not of the same general kind or class as the physical objects enumerated in the statute. Further, it has previously been established that neither coworkers (see Kaminski v One, 51 AD3d 473, 474 [2008]) nor safety instructions (see Gordon v Eastern Ry. Supply, 82 NY2d 555, 563 [1993]; Cody v State of New York, 52 AD3d 930, 931 [2008]) constitute safety devices. Although safety monitoring systems have been approved by OSHA for certain construction projects, including the type of project on which plaintiff was working (see 29 CFR 1926.502 [h]), Labor Law § 240 (1) "'contain[s] its own specific safety measures'" (Dalaba v City of Schenectady, 61 AD3d 1151, 1153 [2009], quoting Long v Forest-Fehlhaber, 55 NY2d 154, 160 [1982]). Thus, we find that the word "device" as used in Labor Law § 240 (1) does not include a system in which a person acts as a safety monitor, spotter, or lookout (see Kennedy v Pine Hill Coffee Serv., Inc., 4 Misc 3d 351, 353 [2004]; compare Matter of Zalenski v Crucible Steel, 91 AD2d 807, 808-809 [1982]).*fn2 Finally, the contention that no other safety device was appropriate is unavailing; plaintiff was not "required to prove what additional safety devices would have prevented his injury" (Cody v State of New York, 52 AD3d at 931). Accordingly, as plaintiff established that defendants failed to provide him with a safety device, and that violation was a proximate cause of his fall (see Pearl v Sam Greco Constr., Inc., 31 AD3d 996, 997-998 [2006], lv denied 11 NY3d 710 [2008]), partial summary judgment was properly granted (see Blake v Neighborhood Hous. Servs. of N.Y. City, 1 NY3d 280, 289 [2003]; Dalaba v City of Schenectady, 61 AD3d at 1152).

Next, Russo contends that Supreme Court should have dismissed common-law indemnification claims by the Norstar defendants and Pinnacle because plaintiff did not sustain a "grave injury" within the meaning of Workers' Compensation Law § 11, which prohibits noncontractual third-party indemnification claims against employers except in the case of such an injury. The Norstar defendants and Pinnacle contend that plaintiff's grave injury was proven as a matter of law. As relevant here, a grave injury is "an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force resulting in permanent total disability" (Workers' Compensation Law § 11), a standard that requires a showing that the injured worker is not employable "in any capacity" (Rubeis v Aqua Club, Inc., 3 NY3d 408, 417 [2004]).

Russo submitted the deposition testimony of several witnesses demonstrating that plaintiff's condition and capabilities have improved well beyond initial expectations, and expert affidavits purporting to demonstrate that he is employable or may eventually become so. By one of these affidavits, neurologist James Story Jr. opined that plaintiff's abilities would continue to improve and that he is able to perform jobs that involve routine repetitive work, although he should not perform work that involves facial recognition or reading skills or that requires exposure to hazards. This opinion was based on Story's examination of plaintiff several months earlier as well as review of medical and rehabilitation records, diagnostic studies, and deposition transcripts. We do not find it so entirely speculative or unsupported by an evidentiary foundation as to be completely lacking in probative force (compare Gray v South Colonie Cent. School Dist., 64 AD3d 1125, 1128 [2009]).

In opposition, Pinnacle and the Norstar defendants submitted the affidavit of a physician who is board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation, opining that as a result of plaintiff's visual agnosia (a condition that prevents him from recognizing faces and objects), poor short-term memory, and other significant cognitive deficits, he is permanently and totally disabled from employment in any capacity and will require supported living and supervision for the rest of his life. This opinion was supplemented by, among other things, the affidavit of plaintiff's father describing his limitations, which include, among other things, the inability to recognize his own family members, determine whether a person in a photograph is male or female, or distinguish between a bottle of soda and one of windshield washer fluid. While plaintiff's evidence is compelling, there are nonetheless issues of fact and credibility posed which may not be summarily resolved. In light of the conflicting expert opinions, plaintiff's permanent unemployability has not been demonstrated so conclusively as to be resolved as a matter of law (see Herzog v Schroeder, 9 AD3d 669, 670 [2004]).

Further, the grave injury issue is not resolved by the guardianship order, plaintiff's eligibility for Social Security disability benefits, or by a determination of the Workers' Compensation Board that he is permanently and totally disabled. Generally, "the determination of one administrative agency is not binding on another agency considering the same question under a different statute" (Matter of Bukovinsky v Bukovinsky, 299 AD2d 786, 787-788 [2002], lv dismissed 100 NY2d 534 [2003]). While such determinations have been found sufficient to raise questions of fact as to whether a grave injury has occurred (see Way v Grantling, 289 AD2d 790, 793 [2001]), they are not dispositive (see Rubeis v Aqua Club, Inc., 3 NY3d at 417 n). Thus, Supreme Court properly found issues of fact precluding summary judgment for any party on this issue.*fn3

Next, the Norstar defendants and Pinnacle contend that Supreme Court erred in denying their motions for summary judgment on their claims for common-law and contractual indemnification. Initially, contrary to Pinnacle's contention, its indemnification obligations do not depend on a determination that it was actively negligent, as its contract with NBC includes Pinnacle's express agreement to indemnify NBC for the acts of its subcontractors (see Walls v Sano-Rubin Constr. Co., 4 AD3d 599, 602 [2004]). Moreover, the indemnification clause in the contract between Pinnacle and NBC is not unenforceable on the ground that it purports to indemnify a party for its own negligence (see General Obligations Law § 5-322.1 [1]). The clause requires Pinnacle to indemnify NBC and its agents and employees only "[t]o the fullest extent permitted by law," and "[t]his limiting language alone operates to insulate the clause from the ambit of General Obligations Law § 5-322.1 (1)" (Ostuni v Town of Inlet, 64 AD3d 854, 856 [2009]). Pinnacle's obligation is further limited to require indemnification "only to the extent caused in whole or in part by negligent acts or omissions of [Pinnacle], [Pinnacle's] [s]ub-subcontractors, anyone directly or indirectly employed ...

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