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A matter of gravity: New York businesses want scaffold law to fall

The tongue-twister “unique New York” could easily have been coined by someone in the construction industry. The state is the last in the union to allow construction workers injured on the job to sue property owners and contractors directly. Other states handle these complaints through workers’ compensation, but not New York. New York has the Scaffold Law, enacted in 1885 and still going strong.

The law requires contractors and property owners to protect workers from “gravity-related” accidents. When a court or jury finds that those protections were inadequate or nonexistent, the worker may be entitled to compensatory and punitive damages. These can be, after all, life-altering injuries that lead to extraordinary pain and suffering for the worker and his or her family.

The law also leads to extraordinary insurance costs for the contractor. Because of the potentially unlimited liability involved in a project of any size, contractors must carry an extra layer of insurance.

The cost of that insurance can actually kill a project; construction companies cannot absorb the premium, so they pass it on to the investor. Investors may well opt to build in a state — perhaps a state right next to New York — where the total cost of the project is considerably less. Critics of the scaffold law say it is costing the state jobs and badly needed momentum recovering from the recession.

Some projects, like schools and bridges and rebuilding after Sandy, are not optional, though. City and state governments cannot absorb the cost of the additional insurance any more than contractors can, but the government has a reliable source of income: taxpayers.

Critics have long argued that the law adds millions of dollars to every public project. As an example, they point to the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge, which will cost an additional $200 million to $400 million thanks to the required liability insurance. According to the New York City public school system, the city could build two new schools every year from the money spent on additional insurance.

Taxpayers are growing tired of high tax bills and little to show for it. The question is, are they tired enough to convince their legislators to move to a more sensible solution to workplace safety?

In Albany, lawmakers have made a little headway recently in repealing the scaffold law. The law’s long-time proponents are beginning to concede that the state is losing jobs and public projects are hamstrung by the threat of workers’ personal injury litigation. A deal could be in the making.

Perhaps it is possible to defy gravity.

Source: ABC News, “Critics Say It’s Time NY Ends 1885 Scaffold Law,” Michael Gormley, Aug. 31, 2013

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