N.Y. High Court Says Landlord Liable for Injury to Tenant’s Contractor

April 28, 2008

New York’s highest court ruled that a Manhattan high-rise owner is liable for injuries to a tenant’s workman, even though the worker was hired without the landlord’s consent in violation of the lease.

The 5-2 court majority concluded that allowing a lease provision to insulate the owner would “eviscerate the strict liability protection” state Labor Law provides workers.

“Our precedents make clear that so long as a violation of the statute proximately results in injury, the owner’s lack of notice or control over the work is not conclusive — this is precisely what is meant by absolute or strict liability in this context,” Judge Victoria Graffeo wrote. Chief Judge Judith Kaye and Judges Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, Eugene Pigott and Theodore Jones concurred.

The suit was filed by the injured workman. The judges took no position on the landlord’s third-party claims against the tenant.

According to court documents, an air conditioner installer was injured in January 2000 on the 11th floor of a midtown building owned by Consolidated Investing Co. Inc. The commercial air conditioner weighing at least 1,500 pounds fell on Christopher Sanatass, a mechanic employed by JM Haley Corp., when a lift failed. C2 Media LLC occupied that floor and had hired Haley without notifying the landlord.

The law requires owners and contractors to provide adequate safety equipment in building repairs and alterations. The majority said it is up to the Legislature to make “any modification” to the strict liability statute, not the court.

In a dissent that faulted the majority’s “literalism,” Judge Robert Smith, with Judge Susan Read concurring, wrote that the lease specifically prohibits the tenant from hiring a contractor to make any alterations without the landlord’s prior written consent. “I do not see how the statutory goal of preventing workplace accidents is advanced by holding a landlord liable in a situation like this. What could anyone expect the landlord to do to prevent the accident, other than what it did?”

A trial court dismissed the complaint by Sanatass and his wife against Consolidated, and the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court upheld that ruling, with two justices dissenting, citing the lease.

The Court of Appeals reversed those decisions and reinstated the case.

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