WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) – A New York congressman is frustrated with one of his state’s laws that he says unnecessarily costs homeowners and taxpayers millions of dollars per year in order to line the pockets of trial lawyers.
On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee is scheduled to mark up Republican John Faso’s H.R. 3088, the Infrastructure Expansion Act. The legislation targets New York’s so-called “Scaffold Law,” which imposes absolute liability for property owners and contractors for injuries sustained by workers.
The Scaffold Law doesn’t provide for a measure of comparative negligence. That is to say, an employee drunk at work who falls will not share in the negligence for any injury.
In a New York Post op-ed from September, Faso says the law has pushed New York’s construction-insurance costs higher than any other state. That, in turn, has resulted in fewer construction projects, he wrote.
“(I)nsurance costs associated with the Scaffold Law were so high that several disaster relief organizations gave up on helping New York families affected by Superstorm Sandy, choosing instead to help those in neighboring states,” Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte wrote to the Judiciary Committee in a memorandum.
The law has long been a controversial one in New York, with the state’s trial lawyers group countering that it keeps workers safe and does not have the effect on the construction industry that some claim it does.
The New York State Trial Lawyers Association has even dedicated a section on its website to getting its Scaffold Law message out.
“The downturn in construction all across New York State over the last few years obviously can not be blamed on the Scaffold Law, which existed when construction was thriving in much of the state before the recent national recession,” NYSTLA says.
“The ups and downs of local economics, not the life-saving Scaffold Law, determine construction activity and employment.”
Plaintiffs attorneys seeking multimillion-dollar verdicts for their clients (like the $50.5 million given in 2010 to a worker who fell 15 feet and was paralyzed) have pushed their own theories – like the case of a man who fell while on stilts.
The state’s highest court ruled in 2015 that stilts weren’t covered by the Scaffold Law.
Goodlatte’s memorandum to the committee says five of the top 20 verdicts in New York in 2016 were Scaffold Law cases. Those verdicts totaled $54.3 million, and one-third of the 50 highest reported mediated settlements involve the same claims, he said.
“Scaffold Law litigation is so lucrative that plaintiffs lawyers reportedly hand out T-shirts and other materials to workers at construction sites, hoping anyone who is injured will call,” Goodlatte wrote, referring to a 2014 op-ed from the Alliance for Minority and Women Construction Businesses.
New York lawmakers have not passed any reforms to the law. Faso’s bill would apply to infrastructure projects that receive federal funds.
Defendants could blame part or all of a worker’s injuries on the worker, if the bill passes.
The memorandum says, citing the group Common Good, that the Scaffold Law has already caused $200 million to be wasted on the Mario Cuomo Bridge project and worries that the coming $25 billion Gateway rail tunnel project under the Hudson River will experience the same fate.
"States should be free to impose their own state laws where state interests govern," Goodlatte wrote.
"But where federal funds are involved, no state should be able to impose an absolute liability rule that substantially increases infrastructure and housing costs to federal taxpayers."
From Legal Newsline: Reach editor John O'Brien at email@example.com.