“Only in New York” is usually just a figure of speech, denoting exasperation with some financial, political or regulatory excess or another. But in the case of the infamous “Scaffold Law,” it’s literally true: New York is the only state that holds contractors and property owners strictly liable even when a worker’s own negligence, or drinking or drug taking, contributes to his injury in a fall from a scaffold or ladder.
This is an archaic law passed in the 1880s — before the Occupational Safety and Health Act, before workers’ compensation insurance — a law that hurts business, kills jobs and costs taxpayers by making liability insurance extremely expensive, or even unavailable. Getting rid of it, or at least changing it, has been high on the list of regulatory reformers for years.
But nothing happens, due to the power of labor unions and trial lawyers, whose numbers include one speaker of the Assembly named Sheldon Silver. He is a member of a Manhattan law firm that handles such cases and paid him $450,000 last year.
We don’t know how many cases Silver handled himself because he and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, another lawyer, have continued to block any ethics law requiring legislators who are lawyers to reveal their clients. But the governor’s newly appointed Moreland Commission, charged with investigating corruption in government, has asked for such information from all legislators — and one can only hope it winds up getting it.
We agree that property owners and contractors should be responsible for providing a safe workplace, but the “Scaffold Law” goes too far.
Bills have been introduced in the Assembly and Senate that would apportion negligence among all parties in cases where the injured worker’s conduct contributed to the accident. This is how it’s done with construction accidents in other states, and with other kinds of accidents in New York. It would be a modest, reasonable change that would show it’s possible to get rid of at least one costly, unnecessary mandate. Gov. Cuomo should be taking the lead on this.