Contractors and Workers at Odds Over Scaffold Law

Source: New York Times Online, December 17, 2013
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In 1885, as new engineering inventions were ushering in the era of the skyscraper, lawmakers in New York State enacted a law intended to safeguard construction workers who were finding themselves facing increasing dangers while working at ever-greater heights.
That measure, which became known as the Scaffold Law, required employers on building sites to ensure the safety of laborers working above the ground. Since then, some form of the legislation has remained on the books despite repeated attempts to repeal it.
But a lobby of contractors, property owners and insurers has in recent months renewed a campaign against the law, arguing that no less than the future of the state’s construction industry is at stake.
They argue that the law is antiquated and prejudicial against contractors and property owners, and essentially absolves employees of responsibility for their own accidents, leading to huge settlements. The payouts, they contend, have in turn led to skyrocketing insurance premiums that are hampering construction and the state’s economic growth.
On Tuesday, a coalition of contractors, including a newly formed alliance of firms owned by women and minorities, announced the start of an advertising and lobbying blitz in Albany and New York City. But a counter-lobby of unions, workers’ advocates and trial lawyers is pushing back just as fiercely. The law, they argue, is essential to ensuring the safety of workers in some of the world’s most dangerous jobs, particularly those employed by shoddy contracting firms that cut corners to save money. The law, they say, holds developers and contractors accountable for keeping job sites safe.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo this week acknowledged the politically loaded atmosphere surrounding the Scaffold Law, but suggested that he was open to the possibility of modifying the law.
The law states that contractors and property owners are responsible for ensuring that scaffolds, hoists and other devices that enable aboveground building construction and repair “shall be constructed, placed and operated as to give proper protection to a person so employed.”
When injuries result from a violation of those terms, the law says, contractors and owners are liable. There is no mention of worker responsibility. Under the law, however, the plaintiff still must show that a violation of the law’s standards occurred and that the violation caused the injury.
But those seeking to change the law want to incorporate a standard of “comparative negligence.” This amendment – described in a state bill submitted earlier this year – would require a jury or arbiter to consider whether the liability of the defendants, and thus the amount of damages, should be reduced for cases in which the worker’s negligence or failure to follow safety procedures contributed to the accident.
Opponents argue that the amendment would reduce the incentive for the property owner and contractors to take necessary safety precautions.
“This law protects both union and nonunion workers and creates a sense of accountability on these job sites,” said Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, an umbrella group for unionized construction workers. “If the law was modified, the workers would lose their voice.”
But those seeking to alter the law say the amendment would not eliminate the owners’ and contractors’ motivation to keep their workplaces safe because they would still face the possibility of shouldering large payouts, even if they were found only partly responsible for an accident.
“The notion that a contractor or owner would want to do anything to undermine the safety of the worker on the job doesn’t make sense,” said Pamela Young, associate general counsel of the American Insurance Association.
Workers’ advocates argue that erosion of the Scaffold Law would have a disproportionate impact on minority and immigrant laborers, who, the advocates say, are more likely to work for nonunion companies that may not provide proper safety training and equipment.
Immigrants, the advocates said, are less likely to speak the same language as their bosses on a job site and more likely to fear being fired if they demand a safer workplace.
From 2003 to 2011, federal safety regulators investigated 136 falls “from elevation” that killed workers on construction sites in New York, according to a recent report by Center for Popular Democracy, an advocacy group. Of those workers, about 60 percent were Latino, foreign-born or both. That rate rose to 88 percent among fatal falls in New York City.
Some trial lawyers have been effective at using the law to secure large settlements. Of the 30 largest settlements in 2012, at least 14 were in cases brought under state labor laws and most of those involved falls from ladders or scaffolding, according to The New York Law Journal. The awards ranged from $3 million to $15 million.
Weislaw, a Polish immigrant, was the plaintiff in a liability case that was settled last month. (He spoke on the condition that his surname not be used in this article, out of concern for his privacy.) He had been part of a crew repairing the roof of a one-story public school building in Long Beach, on Long Island. While he was working on the roof one spring day in 2010, he was concentrating so hard on his task that he lost track of the edge of the roof and fell, he said, suffering multiple fractures.
“I will most likely never be able to return to work,” he said.
Weislaw filed a lawsuit under the Scaffold Law arguing that he had not been provided with proper protection, such as a safety line or a spotter.
The case settled for $2.7 million, said David Scher, a lawyer from the firm that represented him.
Critics of the Scaffold Law say the way it is written makes these sorts of cases easy to win.
“It’s a gold mine for the plaintiffs’ bar,” said Mike Elmendorf, president and chief executive of Associated General Contractors of New York State. “When you get one of these cases, it’s largely about how much it’s going to cost.”
These high payouts, he and others contend, have driven up insurance rates, knocking smaller contractors, particularly those run by minorities and women, out of business and forcing others to suspend work, costing thousands of jobs.
They argue that the impact is as high on government projects as it is on private ones, and that the soaring cost of liability insurance is forestalling the repair and construction of public works projects, such as schools, bridges and roads. The New York City School Construction Authority said in a statement on Monday that its liability insurance costs for 2014 would be nearly as much as those for the three-year period from 2011 to 2013.
But in recent weeks, the law’s defenders have employed a new gambit, demanding that the insurance companies open their accounting ledgers to prove whether the Scaffold Law is, in fact, responsible for the rate increases. Insurance executives have vowed to fight any demands to disclose proprietary information that might somehow undermine their competitive advantages.
State Assemblyman Francisco P. Moya, a Democrat who represents a heavily immigrant and Latino area of Queens, said he planned to submit a bill that would expand reporting requirements for insurance companies and help lawmakers assess whether the Scaffold Law needed to be changed.
“Show us how much the payouts are,” Mr. Moya said. “Once we see that, we’ll have a better understanding.”

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