Several injured construction workers have walked into my office this year in Auburn, Cayuga County, New York, as they do every year, with a typical central New York construction-site injury story that goes something like this: “Mr. Bersani, I fell from a ladder and suffered bad injuries while I was working on a construction project. I guess I didn’t set the ladder up right, because when I got halfway up, it just slid out from under me and down I came. Can you help me?” Sometimes it’s a fall from a ladder, sometimes a fall from a scaffold, sometimes they were just fixing a leak in a roof, and sometimes they were involved in a full construction project. But one thing almost all these clients have in common: They have a nearly perfect case.
Why? After all, didn’t that guy just say he set the ladder up wrong? Wasn’t it his fault? How is that a perfect case?
Well, to understand why, you have to understand New York’s Labor Law 240. (I am going to simplify it for the purpose of this blog – it’s really more complicated. Call me and I’ll be glad to explain in detail).
New York Labor Law 240, known as “the Scaffold Law”, offers special protection for workers involved in construction work (and sometimes other non-construction work) who have to work at heights. What it says, basically, is that if you fall when you are doing construction (or similar) work, the owner of the property where you fell, and the general contractor of the project, and maybe others, too, are all almost AUTOMATICALLY liable to you for your injuries, even if you yourself are partly, and even mostly, to blame.
Why does New York have such a law on its books? Well, you have to look back to when all those really tall skyscrapers were going up in New York. Back then, workers were falling like rain from buildings under construction. Serious injury and death were par for the course. Sure, there were rules on the books requiring construction companies to secure their workers with ropes, lanyards, and other devices, to ensure they did not fall, but those rules were almost universally ignored. Why? Because it was cheaper to pay workers’ compensation death benefits to the family of the fallen worker than it was ensure that all the property safety rules were followed.
The New York State legislature (with a little push from the unions) finally had enough, and said, “you know, we are tired of your excuses. We are tired of all these dead and seriously injured men. From now on, if a worker falls from a height on a construction site, you guys are liable, not just the general contractor, but also the owner of the property. So you guys had better make sure all the safety rules are followed, because if anyone falls, that proves that the rules weren’t followed, and you are all liable.”
New York has been a safer place for construction workers ever since. And insurance and construction companies haven’t stopped complaining about Labor Law 240 ever since. They try every year to wipe it off the books, but so far they have failed.
And that, in a nut shell, is the story of New York’s Labor Law 240, the Scaffold Law, the New York construction worker’s best friend.