Local Group Seeks Scaling Back of Scaffold Law

Business Council of Westchester steps up its campaign to change New York’s regulation, which it says limits developers and strains taxpayers

A 19th century New York law has come under fire from the Business Council of Westchester. The group recently brought in Tom Stebbins, executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of NY, for presentations to kick off their campaign to change NY Labor Law 240/241, otherwise known as the Scaffold Law, which was originally passed in 1895 to protect workers who perform tasks in high places.

According to Stebbins, “The Scaffold Law costs taxpayers $785 million annually,” and he adds that increased insurance premiums and legal costs are the culprit, citing a 2013 study by the Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government, a research arm of SUNY. But it’s complicated: The $785 million estimate of the Scaffold Law’s cost to New York taxpayers is extrapolated from the MTA’s 2012-’14 total project-insurance costs as a percentage of the construction value of all its projects applied to all current, statewide public-sector construction.

In Stebbins’ view, the growing impact on insurance costs is due to the courts’ interpretations of the law to provide for “absolute liability” for gravity-related injuries that happen on the job. Under the case law (not the language of the statue itself), he says a worker who is injured can collect from not just the contractor who hired him, but other parties, like building owners. “Right now, the law apportions negligence to parties that may have had nothing to do with anything,” he says. “That’s just unjust.”

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The disparity between injury claims for Port Authority projects in NJ (no Scaffold law) versus claims for Port Authority in NY which has the Scaffold Law.  

Yet, repeal of the law isn’t the group’s goal. “We’re looking for comparative negligence,” offers Stebbins. “We want to keep the law as it is, but add ‘nothing above shall absolve the plaintiff of culpability for his own injury.’” In other words, if a workman’s own actions—such as ignoring safety rules—contributes to his injury, he can’t expect to collect full damages from his employer.

“For the trial lawyers association, this is a billion-dollar issue,” Stebbins elaborates. “They often, with much rending of garments, say this is a safety issue. It is most certainly not. The trial lawyers profit from injuries. Contractors don’t, insurers don’t, workers certainly don’t, but the lawyers do.”

As would be expected, the NY State Trial Lawyers Association takes a different view. Their official statement on the law says, “Weakening the Scaffold Law would shift safety responsibility from owners and general contractors, who control the site, to workers, who do not control the site and are in a subordinate position.”

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John Ravitz, Executive VP and COO of the Business Council of Westchester, believes the law has a significant damping effect on Westchester’s economy. “We have heard from contractors in the county who are really strong on this because they can’t get insurance policies written,” he says. “One contractor told us he couldn’t get subcontractors to come from Connecticut. Think of the message it sends to a developer who might want to come to New York.”

In 2014, the change in the law was proposed but didn’t go anywhere in the NY legislature. “This is one of our top priorities,” Ravitz says. “We want to see something done in the 2017 legislative session.”

Look for a deeper examination of this issue in the Q4 issue of 914Inc.


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