Debate Over New York State Scaffold Law Reform

A reform to New York State’s Scaffold Law has been proposed which, if passed, would change the way liability in certain construction accident cases is determined. Currently, the property owner and general contractor of the construction site assume all of the liability if a worker is injured by a fall from scaffolding. This reform would introduce a comparative negligence standard, which means that the worker will bear some responsibility for their injury because of their own negligence. This is the way it is done in every other state, as well as in other parts of New York State law. Personal injury attorney James T. Scime spoke to the Buffalo Law Journal about the potential reform and what impact it would have on the construction industry. The full story is available on the Buffalo Law Journal website.

Purpose of the Scaffold Law

According to the Buffalo Law Journal, the Scaffold Law was passed as a response to an increase in deaths occurring when workers were working at height. By placing all of the liability on the property owner and general contractor, the Scaffold Law makes recovering damages easier for the injured workers. Mr. Scime, who worked in building trades throughout high school and college, told the Buffalo Law Journal that this law was critical in seeing that damages were paid by those who were really at fault. He maintains that job sites are safer now because of the Scaffold Law, particularly because OSHA fines do not seem to have an effect on how construction business is done. “The only economic incentive to general contractors and owners of construction sites seeing to it that they are hiring contractors and subcontractors who implement safety programs and safety devices,” Mr. Scime told the Buffalo Law Journal, “is that, if they don’t, there is responsibility and that responsibility is what they’re complaining about now because it can get expensive.”

Arguments for and against reform

Mr. Scime explained to the Buffalo Law Journal that the problem with comparative negligence is that the people who are in the best position to make sure construction sites are safe are the supervisors such as contractors and owners, not the workers. “On a fairness basis,” he said, “the ones who have real control of the safety of a jobsite are the contractors, and it’s not fair to put that on a worker who either has no choice or doesn’t have safety training like the contractor.” Mr. Scime explained that there is currently a defense that contractors and owners can use when faced with the Scaffold Law. If the injured worker refused to use the safety devices available to them, then property owners and contractors can avoid responsibility. Mr. Scime told the Buffalo Law Journal that this is rare, however, as workers will not usually refuse to use protocols and equipment that make them safer.

The Buffalo Law Journal reports that those in support of the change say that the law is unfair as it is and that it negatively affects new businesses and affordable housing in New York State. They also say that most insurance companies will not write policies in New York and that the ones that do have extremely high premiums. Mr. Scime told the Buffalo Law Journal that these increased expenses are worth it to avoid “fly by night” contractors and that general contractors and property owners may even save money because their sites are safer under the Scaffold Law. He said, “If you own a piece of commercial real estate and are putting up an office building, you’re controlling the purse strings. What the Legislature did then is say that, since you’re controlling the purse strings, you hire safe contractors. And, if you don’t, you won’t be able to hide behind saying, ‘I hired a contractor and don’t have anything to do with the way they worked.’”

Success of reform

Mr. Scime told the Law Journal that the success of the reform depends largely on how willing state representatives are to listen to the business lobby. He remains cautiously optimistic, however, that legislators will view the Scaffold Law as a boon for citizens and businesses because fewer injuries are less expensive for all parties. “We, as citizens and representatives of working people, have to continue to be vigilant so that anti-social legislation like this doesn’t get pushed through,” he said.

About James T. Scime

Mr. Scime, a senior partner in Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria’s Accidents and Personal Injury Practice Area, is widely recognized as one of Western New York’s most skilled and respected attorneys. In fact, many local attorneys refer matters to him when their clients have sustained serious injuries. Over the course of his career, Mr. Scime has helped thousands of people recover financial awards for injuries they have sustained.