Scaffolding in action (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)
The tragic increase in the construction death rate reported by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) during the first year of the pandemic should concern all New Yorkers and inspire change in our worker safety laws. Unfortunately, one of the state’s most notorious laws does little to protect construction workers and instead lines the pockets of the state’s politically connected trial lawyers: the Scaffold Law.
Touted as a “safety law” by the plaintiffs bar and their allies, that distinction is dubious given the increase in fatalities NYCOSH notes. How an organization can claim that the only-in-New York Scaffold Law keeps workers safe while announcing an increase in construction injuries is beyond me. And it begs the question: does this unique liability law do anything to keep workers safe or does it simply enrich a politically connected special interest? For taxpayers and construction firms, it means infrastructure funding squandered on expensive lawsuits, project delays, and exorbitant liability insurance rates.
The Scaffold Law, a century-old statute, passed in an era when workers had little to no protection on job sites, holds property owners and contractors fully liable for gravity-related worksite injuries, even if the injured party is primarily at fault. Scaffold Law litigation is a main driver behind sky-high construction costs in New York, and causes delays and inflated price tags for important projects.
While NYCOSH and trial lawyer lobbyists claim the Scaffold Law enhances worker safety, research shows the opposite to be true. By examining more than 3,000 incidents, accross 42 states, over a ten year period, the authors of a study peer-reviewed by the Transportation Research Board at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that the Scaffold Law, which only exists in New York, correlates to an increase in both fatal and nonfatal construction accidents.
That’s good news for personal injury trial lawyers – the law’s failure to enhance worker safety boosts their business by increasing claims and settlements. And they know it; attorneys advertise aggressively near construction sites and in working class communities, enticing construction workers to sue their employers, while maximizing their 33% cut of any settlement or verdict. New York’s lawsuit lending industry also benefits from the Scaffold Law and legal loan sharks are well known to hover near worksites and hospitals, handing out t-shirts and business cards.
New York must take action to combat the alarming rates of worksite injuries and deaths. The ineffective and costly Scaffold Law must be replaced with clear, specific regulations designed for the 21st century. Doing so will reduce the costs and delays caused by excessive litigation while protecting our construction workers.
Tom Stebbins is executive director at the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York. On Twitter @LawsuitReformNY.