For those unfamiliar, the “Scaffold Law” is a New York statute originally enacted in 1882, which holds contractors and property owners automatically fully liable in lawsuits for “gravity-related” injuries that occur on the job. The intent of the law was to protect workers high above the ground, although the implementation of Federal safety standards has since rendered the law burdensome and unnecessary.
As the last state with such a law still on the books, New York stands alone in providing such a tremendous advantage for plaintiffs – in all other states in the nation, liability is determined by a jury based on the relative fault of each party in the lawsuit.
Court of Appeals Judge Robert S. Smith best summarized the law, noting:
“As we have long held, it imposes liability even on contractors and owners who had nothing to do with the plaintiff’s accident; and where a violation of the statute has caused injury, any fault by the plaintiff contributing to that injury is irrelevant…”
With the law making it so easy to win lawsuits, it’s no surprise that New York’s court dockets are inundated with “Scaffold Law” cases – in fact, the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, recently noted that the law is “one of the most frequent sources of litigation in the New York courts.”
Because of the huge volume of lawsuits, the Court of Appeals must continually review cases and make decisions that affect the scope of the law – in other words, which cases are covered by the Scaffold Law (and therefore hold the defendant absolutely liable), and which are simply common law negligence (where the plaintiff must prove the defendant was at fault)?
A recent analysis by Christopher Renzulli and James Brown of the Renzulli Law Firm reviewed a number of significant Court of Appeals decisions. The prognosis is grim: the law’s boundaries are expanding, and there is little indication the expansion will stop. As the analysis notes, a significant expansion occurred in 2009, in the case of Runner v. New York Stock Exchange, where the Court singlehandedly interpreted the law to cover all injuries that resulted from theapplication of the force of gravity, rather than simply falls from height.
The most recent decision, Wilinski v 334 East 92nd Housing Development Fund Corp., goes further, eliminating the so called “same-level” rule. Historically, the courts have interpreted the Scaffold Law to be inapplicable in cases where the plaintiff is injured by an object which falls from the same level (typically, tipping or falling objects). Now, says the court, falling objects are fair game.
Left to their own devices, the courts will likely continue to expand the law. Renzulli and Brown note that, “It seems likely that the case law will hold owners and general contractors responsible for securing every object on a work site.” To stem the rising tide of lawsuits, New York needs a legislative solution. Currently, there is legislation under consideration in the Senate and Assembly, which would eliminate the “absolute liability” standard of the Scaffold Law in cases where the worker was found to be intoxicated, violating safety standards, or committing a crime. This proposal would bring some measure of sanity and common sense to New York’s Scaffold Law.
Read the full case law analysis here.