In Cocoli v. Champion Construction Corp., a trial court judge in Kings County (Brooklyn), New York, handed down a decision that serves as an important reminder of what is the most commonly asserted - and most potent - defense to a construction site accident (or Labor Law) claim - the recalcitrant worker defense.

Although this defense is clearly grounded in common sense, its significance becomes more apparent when viewed in the overall context of how New York's Labor Laws pertain to construction site accidents. By way of background, it must be understood that New York's legislature enacted certain laws, as codified in sections 200, 240 and 241 of the Labor Law, in order to assure that construction site workers would be provided with all the necessary safety devices to protect them from elevation-related risks, such as scaffolding and ladders. As noted in What A Plaintiff Must Prove to Win A Construction Site Accident Case, construction site owners, as well as the contractors at the work site can be held automatically liable for workers' injuries under certain circumstances. And make no mistake, this result is the product of a deliberate design; it was and is intended to assure that these parties have substantial financial incentive to assure worker safety because they are in the best overall position to do so.

But there are two very important exceptions to this rule: if the worker was provided with a safety device, and then disobeyed "an immediate, specific instruction" to use that safety device, or, in the alternative, if the worker disobeyed a specific instruction to avoid using a particular unsafe device. And in those cases, the plaintiff's case may be dismissed.

Certainly, this rule makes a lot of sense. But considering the backdrop of Labor Law's statutory scheme, and the Court of Appeals' holding that the provisions imposing liability on the owners and contractors are to be "construed as liberally as possible in order to accomplish its protective goals," this exception should not be taken for granted.

Jonathan Cooper
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Non-Compete, Trade Secret and School Negligence Lawyer