New York’s Scaffold Law Under Scrutiny, Again

New York’s only-one-in-the-country scaffold law is under scrutiny, again. Council Speaker Corey Johnson is hoping to reform the heavily criticized law while overhauling the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the pseudo-independent government agency responsible for the subway and bridges around New York City. According to The New York Post, the scaffold law assigns 100 percent of the liability to owners and contractors for any injury occurring on a construction site, regardless of whether the worker was at fault or not. Proponents of the law describe the dangerous conditions that New York construction workers must operate and say the law incentivizes contractors and companies to create a safe workplace.

Opponents of the law say the law is unnecessarily expensive, driving up the cost of much-needed infrastructure projects across the state. Across the country, construction liability insurance typically averages between 2 to 3 percent of a construction project. In New York, that number is between 7 and 10 percent, according to Lawsuit Reform Alliance Coalition of New York. Johnson said the law eventually makes a construction project 10 times more expensive to insure in New York. Johnson used the MTA’s East Side Access Project, which links the LIRR to Grand Central, as an example. In 2002, liability insurance on the project cost $93 million. The same liability insurance policy now costs taxpayers $584 million each year. Johnson says the Scaffold Law is a major contributor to the increased costs.

Further, according to Johnson, the law is unnecessary with other states across the country utilizing a comparative negligence standard in personal injury lawsuits against construction companies and contractors. While the exact implementation varies between states, comparative negligence usually assigns a portion of the blame to each party and then awards damages in proportion to fault.

Pro-safety advocates are pushing back, however. Speaking to The New York Post, Labor committee chair Sen. Jessica Ramos of Queens said the law “is one of the most important protections for construction workers…. Weakening the law would give way to developers and contractors cutting corners at the expense of worker safety.” Sen. Ramos may be right that The Scaffold Law protects workers but with the growing chorus of progressive lawmakers calling for reform, it seems unlikely the safety protections will last much longer.

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