In the late 19th century, construction workers in New York were at the mercy of unscrupulous builders and contractors who would require underage, untrained, and worst of all unprotected workers to ascend to great heights in the construction of the skyscrapers which would soon become commonplace on the New York skyline. Finally, in 1885, through the efforts of the New York State Legislature, unions, and some progressive judges, the “Scaffold Law” was enacted. Recognizing that the burden of safety measures and procedures should not be placed on the shoulders of the workers who had no resources to protect themselves and would be fired if they refused to work in dangerous conditions, the law required that owners and contractors ensure that scaffolds, hoists, ladders and other safety devices be provided to the worker to provide “proper protection.”
Under the Scaffold Law, which is now contained in Section 240 of the New York State Labor Law, if a construction worker on a jobsite is injured as a direct result of the lack of proper safety devices, the owners and contractors are “absolutely liable” for all injuries suffered by that worker. Unless the accident is completely unrelated to the lack of safety devices, or is the result of a “recalcitrant worker” who refused to utilize safety devices available to him or her, the owner and contractors are 100% liable for the injuries suffered by the worker.
For many years now, a coalition of insurance companies, property owners and major construction firms have been utilizing an advertising and lobbying campaign on the New York State legislature to weaken the Scaffold Law. Specifically, they seek to include a comparative negligence standard in the law, which would allow juries to consider whether the worker contributed to his or her accident through his or her own conduct. This, despite the fact that there already is the “recalcitrant worker” defense and plaintiffs must prove that their injuries were “proximately caused” by the safety violation. The coalition argues, despite significant evidence against their arguments, that they are somehow losing money and construction is suffering as a result of claims made and recovered by plaintiffs injured in construction accidents throughout the State. (This claim of financial hardship is particularly hard to accept when balanced against the astronomical rents in New York City in 2014 or for new buyers seeking to purchase a one bedroom apartment in the lower East side, Chelsea or virtually anywhere in the City where prices used to be much more reasonable than on the upper West or East side). Interestingly, though, whenever insurance companies are asked to open their books and prove that they are suffering reduced profits, they claim invasion of privacy and “proprietary information” and refuse to do so.
By diluting the law, however, fatal accidents and serious injuries will undoubtedly increase significantly as there will be shifting of responsibility of safety from the major corporations and companies who can afford to implement these measures to workers who will not complain for fear of losing their jobs. There will also be a greater impact on minority and immigrant workers who more frequently work for non union companies that are less likely to provide the necessary safety equipment, and who will be fearful to say anything to avoid being fired.
It will be very interesting to observe Governor Cuomo’s response to the big business and insurance efforts to reduce the effectiveness of the Scaffold Law, particularly as he considers a run for the White House in 2016 and undoubtedly will be seeking the financial support of many of the same insurance companies and corporations that are behind the attack on a statute that has saved countless lives for well over 100 years.
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