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Construction Accidents in New York State – The Scaffold Law

New York State is the only state that makes all those who are in control of construction projects, the owners and contractors they hire, personally responsible for unsafe construction practices which result in injury to workers. It does this through a set of laws found in Chapter 31, Article 10 — Building Construction, Demolition and Repair Work, Section 240, 241 and 241-a. Together they are known as New York’s Labor Laws. Although, the history of these laws can be traced back to the 1885 Scaffold Law, they have gone through various amendments, or versions over the past hundred years, which has expanded its scope beyond work performed on scaffolds. The current version of the so-called Scaffold Law was passed in 1969 and provides the nation’s strongest safety measures for the protection of construction workers who must perform their work at elevated heights as well as workers who are exposed to the dangers caused by certain falling objects.

Probably the most important feature of the law is that it makes all contractors, owners and their agents responsible, meaning liable, for injuries due to a failure to follow what the law requires of them. In order to understand how significant this statute is, it must be compared to what the law was like before the law was passed.

Who Is Responsible For The Safety of Workers In a New York Construction Zone?

All workers are entitled to a safe place to work. When an injury occurs do to the nature of the work or the manner or method of how it is performed, generally it is the employer who has the obligation to protect the worker from these types of dangers. However, every State has enacted Workers’ Compensation laws which provide for very basic medical cost and a limited portion of lost wages without any showing that someone was at fault for the accident. In exchange for the employers’ automatic responsibility for the injury, the employer is immune from law suits brought by an injured employee. However, anyone who has sustained a serious permanent work-related injury knows that the Workers’ Compensation benefits are limited in the amount paid, the kind of benefits provided, the length the benefits are paid for and all to often don’t cover future lost income when the worker is told he is only partially disabled and can return to light duty work, which in the construction field is virtually non-existent. To fully recover for these losses, someone besides the employer or a co employee must be held to be liable for the injury.

Typically, commercial/business lawyers are skilled in understanding what the law requires and how to use that knowledge to protect the best interest of their clients. Before the current Scaffold Law, better known as Labor Law section 240, owners and contractors were not responsible for safe work practices as long as they did not control the manner and/or method of how the work was performed. So, construction contracts would have specific wording to indicate that the owner would not have any authority to direct or control the work to be performed by the general contractor and in turn general contractors would not have control over the work to be done by its sub-contractors. Once the project started, owners and contractors were encouraged not to become involved in safety practices on the job site or how the work is performed, lest they be found to be in control. The effect of this was that owners of the project and the contractors they hired were encouraged to turn a blind eye to safety on the job site making only the injured worker’s employer responsible for the limited benefits provided under the Worker’s Compensation laws. Since the owners were hiring contractors over whom they had no control over, these contractors are referred to as “independent contractors”.

In 1976 I had the privilege of representing the estate of a plumber who was killed when the sewer line trench he was working in collapsed because no shoring was installed to protect him from the dangers of a collapse. The owner of the property, Philip Sgarlata, who just so happened to be a lawyer seeking to have a new house built, was sued along with the independent contractor he hired, Cloutier Construction Corp.  The owner’s position was that the contractor he hired had complete control over the property and how the work was to be performed, therefore, under the pre-1969 version of Labor Law section 240 and 241(6), he could not be held responsible for failing to install shoring in the trench. That was the responsibility of Cloutier, the contractor he hired. Cloutier argued that he hired Allen as an independent contractor to perform the sewer work which included laying the sewer pipe in the trench. If shoring was required, it was Allen’s responsibility not Cloutier. On behalf of Mr. Allen’s estate, I argued that Section 241(6) of the Labor Law changed the law by making all owners of property where construction is taking place as well as the independent contractors they hired to perform the work giving rise to the injury liable for violating Labor Law 241(6) which, in this case, required the trench Allen was working it to be shored to prevent collapsing.

Allen V. Cloutier

This case, cited as Allen V. Cloutier, 44 N.Y. 2d 290 (Court of Appeals, 1976), was decided by New York State’s highest Court. They accepted my argument holding that by passing this law, the Legislature intended to mandate that all owners and their contractors, whether independent contractors or not, are ultimately responsible for any violation of section 240 and 241(6).

In analyzing the specific statute, the Court recognized that before the 1969 amendments, owners and contractors were exempt form liability as long as they did not exercise any control over the work which gave rise to the injury. This encouraged them to avoid getting involved in how the work was performed or what safety measured are needed. The Court also noted that in the construction field, it is most often the lowest bidder that is awarded the contract. Once on the job site the low bidder must try and make a profit and thus has an incentive to perform the work as quickly as possible, which all too often, means taking short cuts especially with safety issues. In the Allen case, the Court determined that it was the Legislative intent to change this practice by making all contractors, owners and their agents absolutely responsible for compliance with the Labor Law. Very shortly after the Allen holding, the Court concluded that since section 240 of the Labor Law begins with the same phrase, “All contractors, owners and their agents”, it too was intended to imposes an absolute duty upon all owners and contractors to comply with the requirements of Labor Law section 240, a/k/a the Scaffold law. Although this phrase is not specifically contained in Labor Law section 241-a, the Court has held that because it was passed as part of the same legislative package as section 240 and 241(6) it must also be interpreted the same way, making all contractors, owners and their agents responsible for violating the requirements of 241-a.

It has to be stressed that these statutes are sometimes wrongly called “absolute liability statutes”. In strict legal terms, the Labor Laws does not make owners and contractor’s absolutely liable for any construction related injury. These laws make them responsible, if and only if, the specific safety requirements identified in the statute are not complied with and the failure to comply results in the injury to a worker. In other words, they will be ultimately responsible, (absolutely responsible) for any violation of the statute which causes injury and cannot claim as a defense to the worker’s lawsuit that they transferred the duty to comply with the statute to the independent contractors they hired.  The Allen case brought an end to the “Independent Contractor” defense. Now it is in the best interest of all owners and contractors to ensure that safe construction practices are followed on all construction sites.

Contact Our Experienced Personal Injury Lawyers, For a Free Consultation

If you or a loved one have been injured in a scaffolding accident in New York, do not hesitate. Call Powers & Santola immediately. Our experienced construction accident attorneys are ready to help you get the compensation that you deserve.

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