There is no greater symbol of New York’s dysfunction, corruption, and hostility towards business than Labor Law 240, also known as the “Scaffold Law.”
The first thing to know about the Scaffold Law is that it does not necessarily have to do with scaffolds. What the law does is hold contractors and property owners 100 percent liable in lawsuits for elevation-related injuries, regardless of any contributing fault of a worker. So if an employee is intoxicated, violating safety standards, or committing a criminal act, the contractor and property owner are still held fully liable for employees’ injuries.
According to recent data, more than one-third of the 30 highest New York settlements resulted from Scaffold Law lawsuits, the highest of which exceeded $11 million. So in one of the most litigious states in the most litigious country in the world, many of our largest legal payouts are from one law that only exists in New York. The last state to have a Scaffold Law was Illinois, which repealed its version of the law in 1995, leading to an increase in construction jobs and a dramatic decrease in construction fatalities and injuries.
For years, the Scaffold Law has driven New York’s construction insurance costs to the highest in the nation. Contractors in New York can expect to spend 300 percent to 1,200 percent more on insurance than their counterparts in other states, crippling our contractors’ ability to compete with out-of-state companies and costing us jobs and tax revenue.
Even if you are not in the construction business, you are paying for the Scaffold Law. A recent study from SUNY’s Rockefeller Institute of Government estimated that the Scaffold Law costs New York taxpayers $785 million annually. The New York City School Construction Authority alone estimates that the Scaffold Law costs it more than $200 million annually, enough to build two to three new schools every year. On bridges that cross into other states, the Port Authority, on average, pays twice as much for lawsuits on the New York side as it does on the New Jersey side.
What was once a cost issue has now become an issue of availability. In recent years, most national insurers have fled New York, unwilling or unable to cover the cost of the absolute liability of the Scaffold Law at any price. New York businesses have struggled to find insurance, often despite sterling safety records. Under the absolute liability of the Scaffold Law, insurance policies are a losing bet — so insurers are simply quitting the game.
And while the financial cost of this law is high, the human costs are higher still. Before Illinois repealed its version of the Scaffold Law, it had a consistently higher injury rate than New York. After Illinois repealed its Scaffold Law, its injury rate became significantly lower than New York’s. A recent analysis from researchers at
Cornell University found that the Scaffold Law seems to make workplaces less safe, resulting in as many as 677 additional injuries every year, almost two a day.
Why? Under the Scaffold Law, personal responsibility is wholly detached from legal liability. Safety is everyone’s responsibility, and our law should reflect that.
So if the Scaffold Law costs billions and causes injuries, why is it still on the books? The answer: the political power of the trial lawyers, who benefit handsomely from this law. For the trial lawyers, the Scaffold Law is their golden egg: a lucrative law that promises a virtually guaranteed settlement. Is it any wonder we see law firms handing out tee shirts and bottle openers with their name and phone number at job sites? Lots of money for little work. Of course, the trial lawyers are going to defend the Scaffold Law.
The trial lawyers prop up the Scaffold Law by dumping millions on our state legislators in Albany. My organization’s recent analysis of trial lawyer political spending, “Power of Attorney,” showed that between the contributions from the trial lawyers’ two political action committees and the contributions from individual law firms and lawyers themselves, the trial lawyers are the largest single-interest contributor in the state.
And many of our state legislators are on the payroll of trial lawyer law firms. Most famously — or infamously — Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is paid at least $650,000 to be “of counsel” at a personal injury law firm that litigates Scaffold Law cases, yet he has not appeared in court or on any court document for over a decade. Federal prosecutors are currently investigating.
When asked about reforming the Scaffold Law, Gov. Cuomo said, “The trial lawyers are the single most powerful political force in Albany. That is the short answer. It is also the long answer.”
We as New Yorkers should not be held hostage by the trial-lawyer lobby. The Scaffold Law is costing all of us. It is hurting our ability to build schools and repair our crumbling infrastructure. It is injuring our workers and making our citizens less safe. The absolute liability of the Scaffold Law flies in the face of common sense and the most fundamental principles of justice. We urge Gov. Cuomo and our legislative leaders to champion Scaffold Law reform. New York should be a great place to live, work, and do business — not a great place to sue.
That is why we have built a broad and diverse coalition of more than 70 organizations and businesses, representing thousands of New Yorkers, to champion reform. Groups like the Farm Bureau, the New York State School Boards Association, the New York Conference of Mayors, and even Habitat for Humanity have all called on our duly elected representatives to reform the Scaffold Law.
Thomas B. Stebbins is executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, a group of business leaders, doctors, and taxpayers dedicated to reforming New York’s burdensome civil-justice system. Visit www.scaffoldlaw.org to learn more about the group’s work on the Scaffold Law issue.