New York Labor Law: No Such Thing as a Free Fall

April 6th, 2007 by

When you talk to insurers doing business in New York, they are quick to point to New York Labor Law as a very big problem. The law, going back to 1885, holds employers absolutely and completely liable for any injuries resulting from a fall. This liability is over and above workers compensation. Injured workers can (and often do) sue for damages that go far beyond the wage replacement and medical bills paid by comp. I imagine that the building of skyscrapers was a big factor in the law’s original passing. But it applies to every form of building, from Trump’s glitziest tower to a strip mall in Poughkeepsie.
Any law that’s been around for 120 years has an extraordinary pedigree, and this one is no exception. Attorney Andrew Siracuse – a proponent of the statute – has made a lot of useful history and case law available here. The original statute (S.18) required proof that the owner “knowingly and negligently” caused the injury by fall. That was was soon amended (in 1897) to remove any mitigating circumstances for employers. In other words, the law does not take into account prior safety training, the availability of personal protective equipment or other attempts to reduce job site risk. Nor does the law care if the employee acted negligently, was stoned, or failed to use available safety equipment. Employee falls, employer pays. Employers are absolutely liable. It’s that simple.
The law holds employers to perhaps the highest standard for safety in the world. Here’s the language of an amendment from 1921:

A person employing or directing another to perform labor of any kind in the erection, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning or pointing of a building or structure shall furnish or erect, or cause to be furnished or erected for the performance of such labor, scaffolding, hoists, stays, ladders, slings, hangers, blocks, pulleys, braces, irons, ropes and other mechanical contrivances which shall be so constructed, placed and operated as to give proper protection to a person so employed or directed.

Any fall is presumed to be the result of a failure on the part of the general contractor/employer. In New York, there is no such thing as a free fall.
Impact of Workers Comp Reforms
The arguments, pro and con, continue to this day. Attempts to modify the law have repeatedly failed. To be sure, the law provides an important safety net for seriously injured construction workers. (It also pays the painter, standing on a bucket in a closet, who injures himself in a fall totalling 24 inches.) Given the historically paltry benefits available under the state’s workers comp law (see our prior blog here), some form of additional benefits was probably necessary. Try living in New York on $400 a week indemnity. The new reforms up the maximum indemnity to $600, but that will still not support a well-paid construction worker and his/her family. If New York really wants to make the Labor Law obsolete, they need to mirror Massachusetts in offering a maximum weekly benefit of $1,000+.
There is one part of this situation that puzzles me. Every state builds tall buildings. Every construction project involves the risk of falling. But only New York has chosen to move beyond comp’s “exclusive remedy” benefits to offer tort liability to workers in construction. Only New York has held contractors to the highest possible standard – and has done so for 120 years. Has this unique standard actually reduced the number of falls in New York? Has New York succeeded in creating safer workplaces, by hammering employers and their insurers with higher costs? I doubt it.
On the other hand, there are times when I am happy that workers carry the extra protection. One only need glance at a recent fatal fall in Buffalo, involving Jonathan Fundalinski, a 24 year old worker. We read in the Insurance Journal that the construction crew began erecting a safety railing minutes after Fundalinski plunged 30 feet to his death. According to police, the crew ignored repeated orders to stop as paramedics battled to revive the victim. The irony is that even if the crew was able to convince authorities that the railing had been in place before the fall, it wouldn’t make any difference. It might support their case in some other state, but not in New York. Railing or no railing, the contractor is liable for the fatal fall of a young worker. They are going to pay, big time. And in this particular case, that’s a good thing.