Hey Cuomo, Silver and Skelos, are you Listening? Absurd Economic Burden Imposed on New Yorkers by 19th Century Scaffold Law

BY THOMAS B. STEBBINS, Executive Director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York

Well, it’s happened. Ten months after I wrote in this newspaper about how the Tappan Zee Bridge project will cost millions more due to the obsolete “scaffold law,” the state lost a scaffold law lawsuit that would likely not have been valid in any other state.

In the case, Kin vs. State of New York, the plaintiff needed to climb a ladder to access a scaffold suspended under a bridge. On the day of her injury, Kin chose to use to top half of an extension ladder, rather than the appropriate bottom half with rubber feet to keep it stable. The extension ladder slipped, and she fell and was injured. She testified that she had access to the bottom half, but chose to use the half without safety footings because it was easier to get to. Now you and I will pay for her choice to use improper equipment.

In any other state, Kin’s negligence would have a significant bearing on outcome of the case. But in New York, the scaffold law assigns total liability to the defendants, even though she was arguably primarily responsible for her fall.

Judge Robert Smith put in best in a 2012 Court of Appeals case, Dahar vs. Holland Ladder, “..as we have long held, [the Scaffold Law] imposes liability even on contractors and owners who had nothing to do with the plaintiff’s accident; and where a violation of the statute has caused injury, any fault by the plaintiff contributing to that injury is irrelevant.”

New York needs to reform this outdated and widely exploited law. It may have made sense in the 1880s when the law was created, but since then every other state has realized that absolute liability utterly fails to protect workers. Indeed, when Illinois repealed their version of the Scaffold Law in 1995, construction fatalities decreased dramatically, even as the number of construction jobs increased. Once employers were relieved of the burden of the scaffold law, they were able to hire more workers, rather than spend money on lawsuits and insurance.

Reforming the law to apportion liability based on actual fault is a no-brainer. Governor Cuomo and the legislature could achieve an incredible three part success: save taxpayer money, strengthen our economy, and create jobs. But as long as the law remains in current form, New York taxpayers will continue to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on unnecessary lawsuits.

The Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York is an Albany-based group committed to changing New York’s legal system to create more jobs and energize our state’s economy


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