Time for New York to Scrap Old Scaffold Law

New York’s Scaffold Law holds property owners, employers and contractors strictly liable for all gravity-related construction accidents.  Enacted in 1885, it is among the oldest laws in the state and an ever-present reminder of the need for New York to modernize its laws to reflect new realities. Every other state in the United States has modernized their approach to construction site liability by adopting comparative negligence statutes that takes into account the worker’s actions – an example New York must follow.

In New York State, an antiquated and simplistic approach means that a court cannot consider a worker’s intoxicated state or gross negligence in the event of an injury.

Even more alarmingly, the parameters of liability under the Scaffold Law are expanding, not contracting.

For example, parties that have no supervisory control over the work have been found liable; and in a recent court decision, liability was extended beyond the construction site at places where materials are produced and brought onto the site.  This has wide-ranging potential: many unsuspecting individuals and parties may now be under the scrutiny of the Scaffold Law.

Reputable, non-partisan research institutions have shown that the Scaffold Law drives up general liability insurance premiums, discourages insurance carriers to enter and remain in the New York market, and directly costs taxpayers $785 million and private businesses $1.49 billion every year. 

Major projects – already expensive – have become even more cumbersome. The new Tappan Zee Bridge, for example, cost $200-400m more than it would have because of the Scaffold Law.

Reformers have tried for years to modernize the legislation in Albany, but have never been successful.

There is, however, another option. US Representative John Faso (R-NY) recently introduced the Infrastructure Expansion Act to Congress. If enacted, the bill would impose comparative negligence on all construction projects that receive federal funding.

On the heels of a major federal infrastructure initiative, Rep. Faso’s bill is welcome news – enacting it would drive down costs of proposed infrastructure projects like the vital Gateway tunnel project between New York and New Jersey. 

Just to be clear: the Infrastructure Expansion Act does not prevent a worker from pursuing a lawsuit if he or she is injured on the construction site. Instead, it introduces a common-sense approach in determining and apportioning liability that works to the benefit of both worker and property owner.  It is a model that should be applied to all projects.

This is precisely why REBNY joined a diverse group of organizations including the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, Habitat for Humanity, the Associated General Contractors of New York State, and the New York City Partnership, among others, to voice its full-throated support of the Infrastructure Expansion Act.  The Act makes sense and should be heard at the earliest opportunity.