New York’s Scaffolding Law Helps Ensure Construction Workers Get Compensated for Workplace Injuries

Construction scaffolding around a house.

The New York State Scaffold Law is the subject of constant, heated debate. The law, originally enacted in 1885, holds property owners and contractors “absolutely liable” for scaffold collapses, falls, falling objects, and all gravity-related injuries incurred by construction workers on the job. This “absolute liability” means that the comparative or contributory negligence of the worker is not considered to reduce the amount of recovery, as is typical in other cases of personal injury.

New York is the only state with such a law; all other states allow recovery to be reduced according to the amount by which the worker was responsible for the accident. Business owners and insurance companies wishing to repeal the law allege that the law increases costs for construction in the state and makes insuring construction projects prohibitively expensive. Most advocates of reform argue that a comparative negligence standard should be applied in lieu of the absolute negligence standard, which would allow corporations to pay out less to injured workers if a court should find that the worker was at fault for any part of his or her injuries. However, due to the high rate of injury among construction workers, the higher rate of immigrant and/or Latino workers in the construction sector, and a lack of evidentiary support for higher costs associated with the law, the Scaffold Law remains an important safeguard for workers hurt on the job and should not be repealed.

Businesses and Contractors Band Together to Repeal the Law

Spearheading the effort to repeal the Scaffold Law is the Lawsuit Reform Alliance, an umbrella organization representing over 60 different interests, such as businesses, nonprofits, municipal groups, and contractors. The Alliance claims that the Scaffold Law is the reason that insurance costs are higher in New York than in any other state, and asserts that insurers are abandoning the state as a result of these high costs.

Whether or not the law is actually the source of additional expense, however, is the source of some debate. A recent report produced by SUNY’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government found that construction costs were higher due to the Scaffold law, and found lower costs associated with construction and insuring work sites in states that had repealed similar laws. However, the report, funded by the Lawsuit Reform Alliance, has come under fire. Critics point to an email chain between SUNY researchers and Alliance leadership, released pursuant to a Freedom of Information Request made after concerns arose surrounding the Alliance influence on the report. The email chain included a discussion of proposed edits to the report. A comparison of initial and final drafts of the reports shows that certain of the edits suggested in the emails were in fact implemented by the SUNY researchers, and those edits affected the final conclusions of the report.

Construction Workers Fighting to Keep the Law

Supporters of the law include construction worker unions and worker advocates. These supporters argue that the greater costs associated with construction insurance in New York have numerous possible sources, and that critics have yet to show conclusively that the laws add any additional expense to the costs of construction in New York. Supporters of the worker protection law have recently introduced legislation that would eliminate the questions surrounding whether the law actually results in additional costs for businesses and property owners. The Construction Insurance Transparency Act, a bill currently before the New York State Assembly, would compel insurance companies to disclose their costs relating to the law. Francisco Moya, the Assembly member responsible for introducing the bill, pointed out that construction remains the employment sector with the highest number of fatalities, and that over 70% of fatal construction falls were Latino and/or immigrant workers. These vulnerable communities would be less likely to be willing or able to fight protracted court cases over comparative fault in order to be made whole after getting hurt on the job.

If you or a family member has been hurt on the job and suffered lost wages or permanent injury, contact experienced construction and scaffold law attorneys at Basch & Keegan. The Kingston personal injury attorneys at Basch & Keegan will work to ensure that you’re compensated fully for your injuries incurred in the Ulster, Orange, and Dutchess County region, as well as throughout the Hudson Valley. Call (845) 338-8884 for a consultation on your possible legal remedies.