Does Your Home Office Put You At Risk Under New York’s ‘Scaffold’ Law?

In a recent case from the New York State Appellate Division Second Department, Sanchez v. Palmiero, the Court held that having a home office may, in some cases, subject homeowners to liability who contract for home improvement work under the New York Labor Laws. The homeowner’s exemption, designed to protect owners of one and two-family dwellings, exempts liability for work site related accidents where the homeowner does not direct or control the work.
Michael Palmiero, a small business owner of American Claims Adjustors, Inc., purchased a single-family home in the City of New York.  Palmiero contracted with Peter Cooney Construction to renovate his home prior to him moving in.  Upon completion of the renovations, Palmiero intended to use the house as his primary residence; Palmiero also planned to maintain a small home office where he would conduct his business.
Javier Sanchez, an employee of the company, was injured when he fell off the roof of the building. Sanchez sued Palmiero alleging violations of Labor Law §§ 240(1) (“The Scaffold Law”) and 241(6).  The Scaffold Law imposes “absolute liability” for elevation-related injuries on contractors and property owners engaged in construction, repair, or demolition work. Absolute liability means that the contributing fault of an injured worker, such as failure to use provided safety equipment or gross negligence, is not in factored in to a jury’s determination of actual fault.
Upon completion of discovery, Palmiero moved for summary judgment to dismiss Sanchez’s Labor Law claims, citing to the homeowner’s exemption for protection. The Court held that Palmiero’s use of his residence as a home office created a question of fact as to whether the building was to be used primarily as a residence or for commercial purposes.  Palmiero was denied summary judgment and the case will be scheduled for a trial.
According to research conducted by CDB Research & Consulting Inc., 1 out of every 4 American households, about 26 million, has a home office.  This new decision by the Second Department sets precedent for suing one and two-family homeowners merely because they choose have an office in their home.
Thinking of renovating your home? You may want to check your homeowner’s insurance policy before hiring a contractor.  Many homeowner’s policies exclude coverage for injuries or damages arising from business or professional activities including those related to a home office.  In other words, you as a homeowner or small business owner could be subject to absolute liability under the Scaffold Law for work related injuries even if the injuries are caused by the worker’s own negligence.
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