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SUNY’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government published a report by a Cornell researcher stating that when the state of Illinois repealed its version of the Scaffold Law, non-fatal construction injuries dropped. The intimation is that when workers are held liable for accidents at work, they are either more careful or less likely to commit insurance fraud by feigning injuries to reap the benefits of the workers’ compensation awards. Labor unions railed against the report alleging it was funded by pro-business advocacy groups. Representatives from both sides of the argument have filed requests under the State Freedom of Information Law for documents and communications related to the report’s creation.

The Business Council of New York State identified reforming the state’s 1885 scaffold law as one of the organization’s top legislative priorities. The Scaffold law states that contractors and owners must protect workers from falls by using equipment that is “constructed, placed and operated as to give proper protection.” If a construction worker is injured, the burden is on the contractor to prove the job site is safe. Business industry leaders say the arcane law needlessly drives up construction expenses due to the rising cost of insurance premiums. They argue the absolute liability clause holds contractors unfairly responsible and that the law should be modified to apply comparative negligence.

New legislation to reform the Scaffold Law would require juries to consider the actions of workers when weighing injury lawsuits in court. The Legislative Gazette reported that “Under a comparative negligence clause, fault would be shared between the worker, his employer and the property owner and reduce the amount of damages paid to the worker if the worker failed to follow proper safety procedures.” The Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York , a business-backed group that wants to see the Scaffold Law amended, and other pro-business groups are hoping the revised law will be passed when the legislative session adjourns in June. Heather Bricetti, president and CEO of the Business Council was quoted yesterday in the Legislative Gazette, “Our agenda focuses on creating solutions to issues hindering business growth and to create a vibrant economy.”

As the law stands now, even if the worker is drunk or makes an unwise decision leading to the mistake, they are still absolved of the responsibility. A New York Daily News article cited examples provided by owners and contractors of what they see as workers receiving huge payouts for accidents that were their own fault:

*An asbestos worker turned on a power washer and fell backwards off a scaffold. The worker says there was no railing, but the owner claimed railings were available — he just didn’t use them. The case settled for $1.6 million.

*A worker told to wait for a scaffold set up a makeshift version by placing a plank between two A-frame ladders, and was injured when the plank broke. That suit settled for $600,000.

*A worker operating a power saw while standing on weather proofing he knew was wet slipped. The saw cut off one of his fingers, for which he received a $300,000 settlement.

Labor unions charge that the push to amend the current law is more about corporate greed and the current law holds businesses accountable for keeping job sites safe. Business advocates believe workers should be held responsible when their own actions contribute toward accidents. The debate still rages on and it will be interesting to see how things turn out when the session ends.

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