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Residential home renovations that led to natural gas line fire were not directed or controlled by homeowner; Court dismisses Labor Law claims

Canel, et ano. v. CNY Construction Management, Inc., et al., 8222/2015 (Sup. Ct. Suffolk Cty. August 31, 2021)

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The "homeowners' exemption" to Labor Law sections 200, 240(1) and 241 applied to claims by workers burned in an accident involving a live natural gas line in a home under renovation. A Suffolk County Court found that the homeowner defendant had not directed or controlled any aspect of the project at the residence he owned and accordingly granted his motion for summary judgment.

The action arose out of a 2015 project to renovate a private residence in The Hamptons on Long Island, New York. The defendant purchased the property in 2014, intending to live there. The property contained a stove that was fueled by natural gas. At the closing the seller asked the new owner whether he wanted the natural gas to the premises to be shut off, and he answered yes. Later, the account with the natural gas utility was closed, and the homeowner did nothing further about the gas supply. However, closing the account did not mean the gas supply was shut off, and in fact the gas line remained live.

Renovations started with demolition under a written proposal requiring the contractor to remove and dispose "all HVAC equipment from the basement, piping, etc. as required." The homeowner was to secure all necessary permits and approvals, for which he hired an agent. He gave a deposit, on a personal check, and demolition began, the homeowner visiting the premises every so often. When visiting, he did not speak with the workers, nor did he supervise their work, and he did not request that the contractor remove natural gas pipes.

The Complaint alleged that the plaintiffs - employees of the contractor - were working at the premises under the supervision of another employee of the contractor and were removing pipes in the basement when one plaintiff cut the natural gas line that ran from the street to the gas meter. This sparked an explosion causing plaintiffs severe injuries. An investigation by the New York State Department of Public Service, Office of Electric, Gas and Water Division, Safety Section led to a proposed settlement with the utility.

Plaintiffs sued the homeowner and others. At the conclusion of discovery, the homeowner moved for summary judgment dismissing the Complaint against him based upon the homeowners exemption, showing that the home is a single-family residence and there was no evidence that the homeowner controlled or directed the work. The plaintiffs and co-defendant utility opposed the motion, contending the homeowner's exemption was inapplicable.

As the Court explained, the exemption, "protects those who, lacking business sophistication, would not know or anticipate the need to obtain insurance to cover them against absolute liability." Yet, the test asks simply whether the work was performed at the defendant's one- or two-family residence; and whether the defendant directed or controlled the work. The landlord established that the exemption applied with evidence including plaintiff's clear, unambiguous testimony.

AGF&J Partner Steven DiSiervi briefed and argued the motion with James Brown on the brief.

If you have any question about Labor Law matters, or the "homeowners exemption", contact Steven DiSiervi at sdisiervi@agfjlaw.com.

Attorneys

Steven DiSiervi
James M. Brown

Practice Areas

Construction Law
General Liability