Sometimes New York state’s legislative and regulatory excess can be dizzying. That’s certainly the case with the “Scaffold Law,” which holds contractors and property owners strictly liable even when a worker’s own negligence, or drinking, or criminal behavior, caused his injury in a fall from a scaffold or ladder. The law is unnecessary, counterproductive, a drag on the economy, and needs to be scrapped or at least revised.
It’s unnecessary because since it was passed in the 1880s, government has taken major steps to prevent accidents and deal with their aftermath, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act and federal workers’ compensation insurance.
It also hurts businesses, kills jobs and costs taxpayers by making liability insurance extremely expensive, or even unavailable. How can it be otherwise when the contractor or property owner is held automatically, 100 percent liable for accidents involving a fall from a height, without any consideration of fault or negligence?
Building groups, which were in Albany two weeks ago to lobby against the law, say the need for extra liability insurance will add $200 million to $400 million to the state’s $5 billion replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Big construction companies may be able to afford the premiums, but what about smaller ones, including the minority- and women-owned businesses whose participation in state contracting Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been admirably trying to increase?
A new study by the University at Albany and Cornell University released yesterday shows just how costly the Scaffold Law is. The study found that it diverts at least $785 million of public money each year from schools and local government toward lawsuits, legal costs and insurance. And that it costs the private sector just under $1.5 billion a year. And that it actually increases workplace accidents by 677 annually because it weakens employers’ incentive to improve workplace safety. Why do it if you are going to have to pay anyway, even if the accident wasn’t your fault?
As in the past, the obstacles to reform are the labor unions and Trial Lawyers Association, whose numbers include none other than Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. His Manhattan law firms handles such cases and pays him $450,000 a year.
The law could be done away with and construction companies could still be sued for wrongful death and injury. Or it could simply be modified to apportion negligence among all parties in cases where the injured worker’s conduct contributed to the accident, as a bill introduced in both the Senate and Assembly calls for. That’s how it is done with such accidents in other states, and with other kinds of accidents in New York.
Either way, it’s time to do something about the Scaffold Law, a monument to union power and legislative capitulation.