State Found Not Liable for Destruction of Fireworks

, New York Law Journal

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The state cannot be held liable under the Labor Law for the destruction of nearly 29 tons of fireworks on the mistaken assumption that they were "explosives," an appellate court has held. In Esposito v. State, 515963, the Appellate Division, Third Department, affirmed Court of Claims Judge Francis Collins and held that the labor commissioner's decision to have Vincent Esposito's stockpile of fireworks destroyed was made in good faith and with public safety in mind.

The case centered on a company, July4Ever and its president, Esposito. In 2006, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents inspected Esposito's storage facility in Walden, Orange County. Concerned about public safety, they contacted the state Labor Department, which cited the company for improper storage and seized the 57,914 pounds of fireworks.

At an administrative hearing, Esposito insisted the fireworks were not explosives, as defined in the Labor Law. But the hearing officer sided with the state and the labor commissioner authorized the State Police to destroy the fireworks. Later, the Industrial Board of Appeals (IBA) reversed and held that July4Ever's license was wrongly revoked.

Esposito sought damages for the wrongful destruction of his merchandise in the Court of Claims. Collins dismissed the claim, concluding the defendant was cloaked in governmental immunity. The Third Department affirmed in an opinion by Justice Edward Spain (See Profile), who noted that the fireworks were seized only after input from the ATF and the Labor Department's health and safety inspector. He also observed that the commissioner was legitimately concerned with the storage of a large quantity of pyrotechnics in metal containers during the summer months. Justices John Lahtinen (See Profile), William McCarthy (See Profile) and John Egan Jr. (See Profile) were also on the panel.

Assistant attorney general Kathleen Arnold defended the state. The claimant was represented by Jeffrey Bernfeld of Bernfeld, DeMatteo & Bernfeld in Manhattan.

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