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Residential v. Commercial Fall Protection-Case Examples

Every construction site can house a variety of hazards, no matter the size or scope of the project. However, as discussed in parts one and two of this series, there are unique regulations and differences in residential construction compared to commercial construction. But beyond the studies and research papers, there are real world consequences when residential and commercial companies don’t have the right procedures in place.

In one case, improper safety measures were nearly fatal. Zeng Guang Lin was working at a commercial construction site in New York City when he fell 17 feet off a roof in 2008. As a result, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and multiple spinal and rib fractures, among other injuries.[1] Although Lin was wearing a safety harness, there was no rope attached to the harness.

“The lifeline would have certainly saved him, would he have been tied off to something,” said David Doddridge, president of D.A. Doddridge and Associates, an expert construction witness firm. The injuries left him permanently disabled, Doddridge said.

Doddridge’s testimony as an expert witness helped garner a $62 million dollar settlement for Lin, believed to be the largest monetary amount for a single plaintiff in Queens, according to the New York Post.[2] In commercial construction, there are specific guidelines set forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to protect from falls depending on the type of work being done.

The reason behind the enormous payout is thanks to a New York state law from 1885. The law – commonly referred to as the Scaffold Law – states that employers and building owners are liable for the safety of construction employees, according to the New York Times.[3]

Thus, if Lin had fallen from a residential structure, for example, the settlement would be nowhere near $62 million dollars, Doddridge said.

But of course, the difference between residential and commercial construction is more than just the settlement.

In another case that is currently in litigation in Massachusetts, a group of residential construction workers were raising a gable end wall while wearing fall protection equipment. The issue, Doddridge said, is that the construction workers had their safety harnesses tied to something behind them, however the lifelines were not long enough to allow the workers to walk the proper distance. As a result, when they tried to raise the gable end to an upright position, the safety line ran out of slack and prevented them from “walking the wall” into its final vertical position. Panicking, several workers moved to get out from under the partially raised wall, leaving one worker to bear the weight of the wall, which came falling down upon him and trapping him underneath the wall.

The result, Doddridge said, was one construction worker with serious injuries after the wall fell on top of him.

“They were sort of on a leash, there wasn’t enough slack in the lifeline,” he said. “If they did not have the lifelines on, this would not have happened.” Fall protection methods such as guardrails or scaffolding could have prevented the tragedy, Doddridge said.

In different situations, construction workers and their employers need to take certain precautions while on the job. Some studies have suggested the safety of the residential industry is prohibited by the perceived high cost of safety programs. But there are real world consequences if companies and employees don’t follow the right guidelines. A business or property owner may recover from a lawsuit or even an extraordinary settlement, but nobody can recover from a fatal injury.

[1] Morelli Law firm, Morelli Law Firm Obtains $62 Million Verdict in Labor Law Case (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.morellilaw.com/Blog/News/2014/Morelli-Law-Firm-Obtains-62-Million-Verdict-in-L.aspx

[2] New York Post, Injured Construction Worker Gets Record $62m Single-Plantiff Award (2014). Retrieved from: http://nypost.com/2014/12/18/injured-construction-worker-gets-record-62m-single-plaintiff-award/

[3] The New York Times, Contractors ad Workers at Odds Over Scaffold Law (2013). Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/18/nyregion/campaign-underway-to-amend-scaffold-law-protecting-construction-workers.html?mcubz=1