Safety and OSHA News

Five-ton piece of equipment falls, kills worker; wrongful death lawsuit denied

New York’s Supreme Court has rejected a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the administrator of the estate of a worker who was killed when a five-ton rotor compartment he was welding fell, killing him. 

Eric Lehman was a welder for Alstom Power in Wellsville, NY. Lehman and a co-worker were assigned to help assemble a rotor compartment weighing about five tons.

Lehman and his co-worker were in front of the rotor compartment inspecting their welds when the compartment fell from its stands, pinning Lehman to the floor, killing him.

The administrator of Lehman’s estate sought damages for wrongful death. A lower court ruled in the estate’s favor. Alstom appealed to the state supreme court.

The New York Supreme Court noted that under the state’s labor law covering workers subjected to elevation risks, the injured employee’s task must be part of a construction project:

“To recover, the worker must have been engaged in a covered activity – the erection, demolition, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning or pointing of a building or structure and must have suffered an injury as the direct consequence of a failure to provide adequate protection against a risk arising from a physically significant elevation differential.”

Whether he was engaged in a covered activity was the question in Lehman’s case.

The lower court ruled Lehman’s welding was part of a construction project, not part of a normal manufacturing process.

But the supreme court disagreed.

The rotor compartment Lehman was welding was set to be loaded on a truck and taken to a customer’s location where it would be assembled. Lehman wasn’t involved in that assembly; he was welding it before it left Alstom’s plant.

Therefore, the supreme court said, Lehman wasn’t involved in a covered activity under the law. He was performing “customary … fabricating … during the normal manufacturing process.”

Lehman’s estate argued that the contract for Alstom to make the rotor compartment repeatedly used the word “construction,” and that proved Lehman was involved in a covered activity when he was killed.

But the supreme court said the law required it to consider the work Lehman was doing, not what was stated in a contract.

The judges on the supreme court panel weren’t in complete agreement. Two judges dissented, arguing the wrongful death should be allowed to go forward.

But the judges who sided with Alstom prevailed. Lehman’s estate won’t be allowed to proceed with its wrongful death lawsuit.

(Tracy Preston, as administrator of the estate of Eric S. Lehman v. APCH Inc., Alstom Power Inc.Supreme Court of New York, No. 165 CA 18-01645, 8/22/19)

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