Slow Economy Could Boost Efforts to Reform Scaffold Law

By: Scott Hobson

New York’s glacial economic recovery and strained municipal budgets could create incentives for lawmakers to advance reforms to the Scaffold Law, as reported by Peter Rugg in this week’s City & State. Quoted in the piece, Tom Stebbins, Executive Director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, highlighted the fact that local governments – and ultimately taxpayers – are paying a steep price for this antiquated law.

“Some of the largest cases against schools and municipalities every year are scaffold-related…These wouldn’t be valid in any other state in the union, and we’re talking million-dollar cases—10 million-dollar cases.”

Scaffold Law lawsuits are a risk whenever a government entity builds or repairs a structure – and just one suit can torpedo that year’s budget. Consider the recent case of Bissel v. Town of Amherst, covered in more detail here, in which a worker performing an estimate on town property fell from a ladder and was severely injured. Despite having no supervisory control over the work, the town was held fully liable under the Scaffold Law to the tune of 23.4 million. Unfortunately for the taxpayers, the town only had $10 million of insurance coverage – a sum previously thought to be more than adequate.

In fact, the highest verdict in New York this year was a Scaffold Law suit against Uniondale Union Free School District – an astronomical $15 million for a worker who was injured when a falling air duct collapsed his scissor lift. For reference, that’s more than the district’s entire annual budget for transportation, interscholastic athletics, guidance, library, and co-curricular activities combined. Yes, the taxpayers will feel that hit – but the students will likely feel it even more.

Municipal budgets across the state are in dire straits. A recent report by State Comptroller DiNapoli revealed that, in fact, many may be on brink of insolvency. Almost 300 local governments ended 2010, 2011, or both  in a deficit. Worse, 27 municipalities had already fully drained, or even exceeded their reserve funds as of August 2012. Meanwhile, litigation against municipalities is costing New York taxpayers a billion dollars every year.

But don’t worry, the tax cap will keep taxpayers from having to dig deeper into their pockets, right?

Wrong. A little-publicized clause in the tax cap legislation allows local governments to raise taxes to cover legal judgments – for example, to pay for a $23 million dollar Scaffold Law judgment. And extra costs on local governments may manifest in another, equally troubling way; cuts to vital services such as police, fire, and emergency response.

Governor Cuomo has repeatedly voiced his commitment to mandate relief, creating a task force and council to address the problem – but no relief has yet materialized. Local government officials, business owners, taxpayer groups, local chambers of commerce, builders, developers, and rational New Yorkers across the state have called on lawmakers to reform the Scaffold Law to bring budgetary relief and stimulate job creation. Many, such as senator James Seward (R, Oneonta) have answered the call. In fact, legislation to reform the Scaffold Law enjoys bipartisan support in both houses of the legislature.

With legislative session less than two months away, it’s time for lawmakers to get serious about controlling spiraling costs on our local governments. Step one? Reform the Scaffold Law.

 

To find out more about the effort to reform the Scaffold Law, visit www.scaffoldlaw.org

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