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New York Labor Law 240 – The Scaffold Law

New York Labor Law 240(1), originally known as “the Scaffold Law” can be traced back nearly 130 years ago to 1885, when developers began erecting the first skyscrapers which were then 10 to 20 story buildings. Buildings like the NY Tribune and Produce Exchange had recently been completed and the NY World Building and the original Madison Square Garden would be developed a few years later. New York was starting to take shape, but as the building heights climbed, so did the number of injuries and deaths associated with working from those heights without proper protection.

Written before NY State had employed a workers’ compensation system, the Scaffold Law’s original intent was to provide injured workers and their families a means to recover damage awards from property owners and developers, the controlling contractor, and/or their agents (employer). Today, New York has a favorable workers’ comp system in place and there have been numerous advances in fall protection means and methods, but Labor Law 240 remains virtually unchanged from the 19th Century inception of the Scaffold Law. In fact, the only amendments over the years have broadened the laws reach and its interpretation by the courts has become more liberal.

Highlights of the progression of Labor Law 240:

  • 1885 – Labor Law 240 is enacted. Defendants could transfer liability to the worker if it was proven they contributed to the accident (contributory negligence).
  • 1923 – Courts introduce the notion of the employers “absolute duty” to furnish safe scaffolding. (Maleeny vs. Standard Shipbuilding)
  • 1948 – Courts rule against the contributory negligence defense and again describe an employers responsibility to their workers as an “absolute duty”. (Koenig vs. Patrick Construction)
  • 1958 – Courts, for the first time, refer to the employers “absolute duty” as an “absolute liability”.  (Conners vs. Boorstein)
  • 1998 – Courts rule that defendants are not liable in the event that the injured worker is solely responsible for their injuries.
  • 2003 – Courts rule that the law is applicable to falls from heights as low as 15 inches from the ground, floor or deck. (Amo vs. Little Rapids Corp)
  • 2009 – Courts expand the reach of Labor Law 240 including injuries caused when workers “restrain” objects, in addition to gravity related hazards such as falls and falling objects.
  • 2013 – NY State Legislature overturns a reform measure, supported by the governor, meant to establish a new comparative negligence standard holding the injured worker responsible for their contribution to the accident.

In English, the notion of absolute liability with respect to Labor Law 240 means that employers can be held liable even when they are not actually involved in construction, and regardless of whether they exercise supervision or control over the work. In fairness, the plaintiff still has a burden of proof and must show that a statutory violation was the proximate cause of their fall or applicable accident.  Basically, it’s on the plaintiff to A) prove that there was a violation of Labor Law 240, and B) prove that the violation caused the accident.  With that said, New York is the only state in the union to have such a law in force, and if history has proven anything it is that regardless of the intent of the statute itself, the applicability and subsequent compensability is ultimately decided by the courts.

…should the employer be absolutely liable?
Shouldn’t the employee be held responsible for their fair share?
Are the damages awarded commensurate with the injuries sustained, or are they the result of legal maneuvering and manipulation of the system?

It seems evident, that common sense must eventually prevail. Of course an injured worker should be entitled to damages in the event of a violation and their families should be taken care of if injury causes death or prevents them from working in their normal capacity. However, should the employer be absolutely liable? Shouldn’t the employee be held responsible for their fair share? Are the damages awarded commensurate with the injuries sustained, or are they the result of legal maneuvering and manipulation of the system?

Regardless of which side you’re on, if you are a New York owner, developer, GC/CM, or contractor, it is impossible to ignore the impact that Labor Law 240 has had on the insurance marketplace.

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