On September 20, 2011, seventeen people were injured when a building scaffold collapsed onto a city bus in Harlem. Fortunately, the injuries of the scaffolding accident were minor, because the people waiting at the bus stop got on the bus moments before the collapse. The Department of Building had issued a stop-work order and will be issuing violations to the demolition contractor.
Not only can innocent bystanders be injured in scaffolding accidents, those who work in construction are also at risk. Construction is physically demanding and dangerous work. In 2009, 29 construction workers were killed in workplace accidents according to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor statistics.
New York‘s Scaffold Law protects workers
New York’s Scaffold Law serves as an effective workplace safety measure. Labor Law §§ 240, 241, and 241-a require owners and contractors to provide safety equipment to protect workers from falling while working on scaffolding, ladders and roofs and other injuries resulting from gravity. Under the law, an owner or contractor is strictly liable for injuries resulting from their own or their subcontractor’s failure to provide safety equipment.
The Scaffold Law does not apply to owners of one and two family residences, unless they control the method of the work. The legislature enacted the law to avoid deaths and injuries associated with working at elevated construction sites. Insurance and business industry lobbyists continually seek to reform the law arguing it restricts hiring and needlessly increases the cost of liability insurance.
Attempts at reform are unnecessary
The proposed legislation would substitute a comparative negligence standard for the strict liability standard. Currently an owner or contractor is held strictly responsible for an accident if they failed to provide proper safety equipment and the lack of proper safety equipment caused the accident. But with comparative negligence, the employee must prove he or she followed the safety instructions, used the safety equipment and was not impaired by drugs or alcohol when injured. New York used this approach from 1962 to 1969.
Then it became apparent that workers could not protect themselves on job sites and the burden was shifted to the owners and contractors who control the sites. The reform is not necessary because the New York Court of Appeals recognizes a “sole proximate cause” defense in situations where a worker’s negligence causes the accident. An owner or contractor is not held responsible if a worker misuses safety devices and is injured. Any argument that the economy is faltering because of strong Labor Laws is a political motivated sound bite.
Getting rid of the strict liability standard in New York’s Scaffold Law would not be in the best interests of the workers the law is meant to protect nor would it benefit the public because severely injured workers would often become dependent on the government to obtain medical care and support their families.