In today’s New York Law Journal, Julian Ehrlich highlights troubling inconsistencies in how New York trial courts interpret the “sole proximate cause” defense, under which if a worker is 100% responsible for their injuries, the employer bears no liability.
Although the formulation of the “sole proximate cause defense”2 to §240 has not changed in over a decade since Cahill, courts have been markedly divided on its application, particularly as to whether this issue should go to the jury.
However, given the nature of the four criteria established for the defense in Cahill and the accompanying, often conflicting, versions of accident facts, causation typically should be properly decided by a jury rather than as a matter of law by the court.
In fact, the court in Cahill repeatedly referred to causation as properly a question for the jury.
For example, the court, in reversing the lower courts’ grant of plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and in enumerating the standard, stated: “Here, a jury [emphasis added] could have found that  plaintiff had adequate safety devices available;  that he knew both that they were available and that he was expected to use them;  that he chose for no good reason not to do so; and  that had he not made that choice he would have not been injured.”
In addition, the court stated: “The controlling question is…whether a jury [emphasis added] could have found that his own conduct rather than any violation of Labor Law §240(1) was the sole proximate cause of his accident.”3
Nonetheless, recent decisions have been sharply divided over whether sole proximate cause is a jury question in §240 cases.