Oneida County legislators are being lobbied to take a position next year urging reform of the state’s Scaffold Law, which makes property owners and contractors liable for most “gravity-related” injuries to workers on construction sites.
William Gaetano of Utica-based Charles A. Gaetano Construction Corp. spoke at the Republican and Democratic legislative caucuses last week to explain that the Board of Legislators will be asked to take a stand against the current law after the state Legislature begins its new term in January. He left several handouts for the lawmakers.
Past efforts to change law have failed, with labor unions and trial lawyers pushing back against reform attempts. A coalition of contractors and other groups seeking to change the law is planning another run at it next year.
Builders and developers claim the 1885 law adds millions of dollars in costs to construction projects. It requires another layer of general liability insurance for contractors and hits taxpayers by adding to the cost of public projects. For example, building groups estimate that the required liability insurance premiums will add an extra $390 million to the $4 billion replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge on the New York Thruway.
“So somebody’s going to have to pay for it,” Gaetano told the GOP caucus
The state law has remained long after other states abandoned similar laws, replaced by less costly federal workers’ compensation insurance.
What makes New York unique is that the Scaffold Law gives workers on all construction sites the ability to sue property owners and contractors directly for liability. Construction or utility workers injured in a fall, or people injured walking near a building site, are not required to prove intent to harm or negligence by the owner or general contractor.
Supporters maintain the law helps ensure the safety of workers in dangerous jobs The law, they say, holds developers and contractors accountable for keeping job sites safe.
If New York enacted scaffold reform, accident victims would still be able to sue for any negligence that caused their injury, Gaetano said. But it would mean that contractors or small businesses could defend themselves if the employee’s own negligence, bad behavior or intoxication contributed to the injury.
The construction company official said a key to changing the law is powerful Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. He has been accused of blocking repeal or changes because he works for a Manhattan law firm that handles personal injury case.
“The main guy is Shelly Silver,” Gaetano said. “He will not bring the bill up for a vote.”
Oneida County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. said, “The counties look at it as one of those areas that add costs to our contracts.”
In June, the Greene County Legislature unanimously passed a resolution urging reforms to the law. According to the measure, “the Scaffold Law has caused a dramatic increase in construction costs due to increased insurance required for employers in the construction business, causing New York State to have the highest general liability insurance costs in the nation.”
The resolution calls for the full repeal of the law, or “modification to include a pure standard of comparative negligence” — in other words, allow the employer to make a legal case for at least partial employee responsibility when appropriate.