Op-ed: The Tappan Zee Bridge and the Scaffold Law

Thomas B. Stebbins

Executive Director

Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York

It’s going to cost at least $5 billion to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. That’s a fact. But what’s also a fact is that it could cost about $3.8 billion if the New York State Assembly and Senate would finally join the 49 other states and get rid of NY’s Scaffold Law.

It’s no great secret that the infrastructure of our state is quietly crumbling away just as the economy seems poised to turn a corner. And yet, for many reasons (none of them good), our state legislature continually chooses to turn a blind eye to legislative changes that could address our infrastructure needs, stimulate the economy, put people to work, and lower the burden on already collapsing NY taxpayers. Ironically, if they would make one simple change, much of this could be accomplished. The biggest issue is the need to reform NY’s outdated and regressive Scaffold Law (Labor Law 240/241).

This critical issue raises the cost of construction in New York and drives many firms out of the State. It cost contractors, builders and municipalities untold billions of dollars. Thanks to the Scaffold Law, of the $5 billion that it will (reportedly) cost to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge, fully $1.5 billion of that could be spent on insurance. If the bridge were built in Chicago, the insurance cost would be closer to $300 million. Why the difference?

Under this law, contractors, employers and property owners are held absolutely liable for “elevation related injuries.” In New York, unlike any other state, when an injured worker sues, the employer is automatically liable, even if the injured worker was entirely at fault. Contrary to the most basic principles of justice and fairness, the employer has little access to due process. According to the Insurance Services Office, an elevated project like the Tappan Zee can expect roughly $750 in insurance per $1000 in labor costs. If labor costs account for 40 percent of the total cost of the Tappan Zee Bridge project, the project can expect $1.5b in insurance. In Chicago, the cost is $150 per $1000 in labor costs, or $300m. This is in large part because Illinois has no Scaffold Law.

So on just this one project, NY taxpayers are footing the bill for an extra $1.2 billion to cover the costs of possible lawsuits. Now, do some more math and extend these costs to every single construction project in this state. Who benefits from this insane situation? It’s not workers who are already fully protected by federal labor statutes. It’s certainly not taxpayers. It’s not unions. No, the only people who benefit from the Scaffold Law are the trial attorneys and it’s their multi-million dollar lobbying efforts in Albany which are keeping this antiquated law in place.

Governor Cuomo has told the media that New York is “open for business.” Here’s one easy way to prove it. We need more investment in our infrastructure and we need to make it less expensive for our taxpayers.

Reforming the scaffold law would be a great start on both counts. Our legislative leaders need to do the right thing for our taxpayers and for our state. NY needs to be number one for innovation, job growth, opportunity and prosperity, not number one for lawsuits.

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