‘Rescue Doctrine’ Can be Relevant to Labor Law Involving Construction Site Safety in Personal Injury Lawsuits in New York
The Appellate Division, First Department court issued a comprehensive, signed judgment stating, “A worker witnessing a colleague in danger may feel an intensified duty to aid them, perhaps because of the shared experiences and joint efforts between them.”
A group of judges in the Appellate Division, First Department addressed an unprecedented issue on Thursday, declaring that the conventional “danger invites rescue doctrine” is indeed relevant to personal injury lawsuits filed under a state Labor Law section associated with Industrial Code safety regulations at construction sites.
Until Thursday’s verdict, the First Department appeals court hadn’t explored the possibility of the age-old doctrine, traditionally applied in personal injury scenarios, being utilized when a claim is made under state Labor Law § 241(6).
In an exhaustive, signed judgment, the five judges of the First Department, an intermediate court processing appeals from Manhattan and the Bronx, highlighted that the Second Department of the state, overseeing outer boroughs and certain parts of Long Island, as well as the Fourth Department, managing 22 upstate counties, “have implemented the rescue doctrine in relation to Labor Law § 241(6) claims.”
However, this court had not previously considered the issue. The unanimous decision made by the panel on Thursday overturned a lower court ruling which had sanctioned a summary judgment on the applicability of the “rescue doctrine”.
The defendants in the original lawsuits, namely New York City and the city Transit Authority, had successfully argued in a Bronx trial court that the injuries sustained by a construction worker plaintiff who had instantaneously assisted an injured colleague “didn’t result from any breach of the referenced Industrial Code provisions that could establish a necessary basis for a claim” under Labor Law § 241(6), according to the First Department opinion.
The city and the transit authority had also contended that the “rescue doctrine” wasn’t relevant in the lawsuit involving plaintiff Brian Leonard, as he had independently made a snap decision to aid a coworker who had been struck by a heavy beam in 2014.
Bronx County Supreme Court Justice Lucindo Suarez granted summary judgment to the defendants in a 2022 ruling, despite Leonard and his legal team asserting that “there was a dispute over whether the danger invites rescue doctrine … is applicable to his Labor Law § 241(6) claim” and that under the doctrine “any harm to his coworker [concerning Industrial Code provisions and that coworker’s safety] was a harm to him for which defendants were accountable.”
On Thursday, in overturning Suarez’s decision, the unanimous First Department judges partly stated that “the rescue doctrine is predicated on an assumption about human behavior: bystanders witnessing an event that endangers an individual will feel compelled to save that person.”
They then noted that “indeed, workers witnessing a colleague in danger may feel an enhanced duty to aid that colleague, as the rescuer may have a bond of shared experiences and endeavors with them.”
Additionally, in an opinion endorsed by panel Justice Peter Moulton, they observed that” essentially, Labor Law § 241(6) aims to promote compliance with the state’s Industrial Code by owners and contractors,” and that “by safeguarding all workers at risk due to non-adherence to the Industrial Code, including workers who attempt to rescue their colleagues, the core purpose of the Labor Law is thereby advanced. ”
Still, the judges also stated that in the specific case involving plaintiff Leonard, summary judgement should be overturned, but then it’s for the “fact-finder to determine whether plaintiff’s rescue attempt in this instance was a reasonable course of action at the time.”
The basic facts regarding what happened to Leonard and his unnamed coworker were essentially not disputed, Moulton pointed out.
According to allegations made in Leonard’s 2015 lawsuit, Moulton narrated that Leonard was working on a sewer and water main reconstruction project on December 31, 2014, “when the trench wall collapsed” and “a heavy steel beam which had been supporting the trench walls fell four to five feet onto a coworker’s leg, prompting the coworker to scream.”
“Without a moment’s hesitation, [Leonard] entered the trench,” and while he “tried to remove the beam from his coworker, [Leonard] ‘experienced a major pop’ in his lower back and ‘somewhat lost consciousness'”, he has alleged that he “suffered serious lower back injuries necessitating extensive medical treatment, including multiple surgeries, injections, and therapy,” wrote Moulton, recounting allegations in Leonard’s complaint.
Last year, Suarez argued in his opinion that “there was an absence of a causal connection between the trench wall collapse, which is the subject of the relevant Industrial Code sections cited by plaintiff [Leonard], and plaintiff’s injury, which resulted from his attempt to lift the steel bar off of his coworker following the trench wall collapse,” according to the appeals court decision.
The lower court had “highlighted that the rescue doctrine was established at a time when plaintiffs could be dismissed for any contributory negligence and before the introduction of comparative negligence,” and Suarez had ruled that “‘any legal matters regarding [p] laintiff’s contributory negligence played no role in this court’s decision to dismiss Plaintiff’s Labor Law § 241(6) claim, thus, this court deems the “danger invites rescue” doctrine wholly irrelevant to the facts at hand,'” according to the appeals court.
But on Thursday, the panel, through the decision written by Moulton, said that legal precedents going back to Justice Benjamin Cardozo’s 1921 Court of Appeals decision in Wagner v International Railway” do not necessitate that the rescuer be subjected to the same harm that required a rescue.”
Moulton then wrote, “because [Leonard’s] coworker was allegedly endangered by a breach of one or more of the cited Industrial Code sections, the rescue doctrine doesn’t require the plaintiff to have also been harmed in the same way.”
The appellate justice also later penned, in regard to arguments that the doctrine was formed when contributory negligence was the norm as opposed to comparative negligence, that “it’s unclear why this historical fact would be decisive here.”
“The rescue doctrine has remained in use even after New York State adopted a comparative negligence regime in personal injury cases,” stated Moulton.
Moulton also refuted a defense argument “that the nontransferable duty imposed by Section 241(6) on owners and contractors, which exposes them to liability even if they weren’t negligent, indicates that the rescue doctrine is irrelevant.”
“While it’s accurate that the rescue doctrine was rooted in common-law negligence, the Court of Appeals hasn’t confined the rescue doctrine to that context,” Moulton noted.
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