New York Scaffold law gives special protection to construction workers

Unique to New York is a special statute that protects construction workers in gravity-related accidents.

New York City's skyline tops those of the world's great cities with its display of skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes. The workers who built that breathtaking vista over decades faced many dangers and made many sacrifices in the construction process. Because of the hazards associated with building at elevated height and the personal risks such construction workers face, New York passed a law unique to the Empire State: the Scaffold Law.

The Scaffold Law has been around in some form since as early as 1885.

When a construction worker is injured on the job, he or she may file a claim for workers' compensation and may have other third-party claims, depending on the situation. In addition, the Scaffold Law gives additional legal protections to New York construction workers in gravity-related accidents by allowing lawsuits against contractors, owners and their agents in particular situations (except for owners of one and two-family homes, architects or engineers who do not control the worksites).

Basically, the Scaffold Law provides a legal claim when a worker falls from a height or an object like a piece of equipment or debris falls onto him or her and the owner or contractor failed to provide proper protection against such an accident. Examples listed in the law of the kinds of construction-worker protections that may be appropriate to construct, place and operate include:

  • Scaffolding
  • Hoists
  • Stays
  • Ladders
  • Slings
  • Hangers
  • Blocks
  • Pulleys
  • Braces
  • Irons
  • Ropes
  • And more

The worker must have been involved in one of the following tasks on a building or structure:

  • Erection
  • Demolition
  • Repairing
  • Altering
  • Painting
  • Cleaning
  • Pointing

The liability of the owner or contractor under this law is said to be "absolute," which has been the object of criticism and given rise to calls for amendment. However, absolute liability here does not mean that the owner or contractor is strictly liable for a gravity-related injury under any circumstance, even without fault. What it does mean is that once it is shown that the owner or contractor did not provide proper protection, the liability attaches, even if it was only one of several causes of the accident.

Supporters of the law and advocates for construction workers object to any modification of the law, responding that it is the contractor or owner who has control over the site, who has the means and the knowledge to provide appropriate protection from falls and falling objects, so that any deviation from the responsibility should open them up to liability for the resulting injury.

The Scaffold Law and its interpretation by New York courts are extremely complicated. This article provides only a basic introduction and any New York construction worker who was injured or family member of a deceased construction worker who died in a gravity-related construction accident should speak with an experienced lawyer who has worked with the Scaffold Law to see whether a potential claim exists.

In Staten Island, personal injury attorney Orin J. Cohen of Orin J. Cohen Law represents injured construction workers in Scaffold Law and other claims, as well as other New Yorkers in a variety of personal injury matters.