New York Appellate Division Dismisses Labor Law Action Based on “One Family Exemption” Despite Commercial Project Next Door
New York, N.Y. (May 26, 2021) - By statute, owners of “one- or two-family dwellings” are exempt from liability under the express language of Labor Law §§ 240(1) and 241(6), unless they directed or controlled the work being performed. The exemption does not apply to general contractors or subcontractors, even if they worked on single-family homes. Tomyuk v. Junefield Assoc., 57 A.D.3d 518 (2d Dept. 2008). Thus, if the exemption applies, the Labor Law causes of action may proceed against general contractors and subcontractors, but not against the owners. The purpose of this “one family exemption” is “to protect owners of one- and two-family dwellings who are not in a position to realize, understand, and insure against the responsibilities of strict liability imposed by Labor Law §§ 240(1) and 241(6)." Abdou v. Rampaul, 147 A.D.3d 885, 886 (2d Dept. 2017), quoting Ramirez v I.G.C. Wall Sys., Inc., 140 A.D.3d 1047, 1048 (2d Dept. 2016). “The phrase direct or control as used in those statutes is construed strictly and refers to the situation where the owner supervise[d] the method and manner of the work.” Torres v. Levy, 32 A.D.3d 845, 846 (2d Dept. 2006).
Notably, if your client is a contractor who only has a contract with the owner, and is brought into the litigation by a third-party action asserted by the owner, your client may benefit from the doctrine. That is especially true if your client is the plaintiff’s employer, and therefore shielded from a direct action by the plaintiff under the Workers Compensation Law, § 11. However, the “one family exemption” does not “apply to owners who use their residences ‘purely for commercial purposes.’” Landon v. Austin, 88 A.D.3d 1127, 1128 (3d Dept. 2011), quoting Lombardi v. Stout, 80 N.Y.2d 290, 296 (1992).
The rule was recently tested in Debennedetto v. Chetrit, 190 A.D.3d 933 (2d Dept. 2021). There, the Appellate Division, Second Department addressed a Labor Law §§ 240(1) and 241(6) claim against the defendant owners, the Chetrits, who retained a general contractor to construct a one-family house, as well as a commercial project next door. The Appellate Division reversed the order of the lower court and granted summary judgment in favor of the Chetrits based upon the one-family exemption. The controlling issue for the court was that plaintiff’s accident occurred at a house that the Chetrits intended to be used, on a noncommercial basis, by their son and his family. Further, they did not direct or control the work that the plaintiff was engaged in at the time of the accident. In so holding, the Appellate Division rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the one-family exemption did not apply because the Chetrits were also building a separate one-family house on abutting property, for commercial purposes. Despite this commercial project, the court held this did not matter, because the accident occurred at the house the Chetrits were building strictly for a noncommercial purpose.
As this decision makes clear, the key to the “one family exemption” is that the owner intends to use the dwelling in question for a non-commercial purpose. As long as that standard is met, it does not matter that other projects were also underway, even if those projects had a commercial purpose.
Nicholas P. Hurzeler, Partner
Gregory S. Katz, Managing Partner - New York, NY