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New York’s Scaffold Law Survives the Test of Time, Protecting Workers

By Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo Plotkin & Hellman LLP

In most states, when a construction worker is injured on the job site, he is not able to sue his employer or the general contractor.  His only recourse is worker’s compensation.  That’s not the case in New York and hasn’t been since 1885 when the state legislature passed the Scaffold Law. 

Critics blame the law for exorbitant construction costs and high insurance premiums while workers praise the law for protecting them. 

The Scaffold Law protects workers from any work injury such as a fall that is gravity-related.  It holds employers and property owners fully liable when an employee becomes injured due to a gravity-related fall while working at high elevations without proper safety equipment. The law was enacted in 19th century and is contained in New York State Labor Law § 240/241.

In 1995, the state of Illinois repealed its absolute liability standard law for gravity related injuries, leaving New York as the last and only state with such a statute. 

In practical terms, the Scaffold Law comes into play when the injury involves gravity such as an object falling from a high place striking and injuring a worker or a worker falling down from a high place. 

What needs to be proven for a successful claim is:

(1) the entity was the owner or general contractor of the construction project;

(2) the activity that produced the injury was a covered activity; and

(3) the injury was caused by gravity.

If these factors are established, the only defense available to the owner and general contractor is to prove that you wee provided with proper safety devices and with safety instructions, and that your accident was only caused by your intentional disregard for safety devices and instructions (known as the “worker recalcitrant” defense). This is an extremely difficult defense to prove, as the worker’s actions are not otherwise considered in the evaluation of the statutory liability.

However, this doesn’t mean that all claims under Labor Law section 240 are simple to establish. The New York Scaffold Law is deliberately written to be very specific about what it covers, and the courts are strict about its interpretation.

Because this law allows for injured workers to recover more than they would in a normal workers’ compensation case, the courts must be strict about what cases fall under it. The law also only applies to workers within the construction industry and does not apply to those individuals who are performing routine maintenance, manufacturing, or decorative work on a structure. So, a pedestrian who is struck by an object that has fallen off a building would not be able to invoke the Scaffold Law. 

Picture of Thomas P. Giuffra, Partner

Thomas P. Giuffra, Partner

Thomas specializes in the litigation and trial of significant civil sexual assault, medical malpractice, personal injury, mass tort, and product liability actions. His innovative approach has led to 20 verdicts and numerous settlements in excess of one million dollars on behalf of his clients, including a recent landmark verdict for $58 Million. He has been recognized as "outstanding in the field of advocacy" nationally and internationally.

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