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The scaffold law

As related by, a worker at New York University fell from a scaffold and plummeted six stories onto an apartment roof. The worker was rushed to Belleview hospital but did not survive. The university immediately shut down work on the project to ensure that proper safety protocols were being followed by contractors.

Workplace injuries happen every day, though most with less tragic consequences. It is worth noting that, in a study compiled by the Center for Popular Democracy entitled Fatal Inequities, 74 percent of the fatal falls in New York City construction accidents alone involve Latinos or immigrants. The study was based on statistics compiled by the OSHA between 2003 and 2010.

What makes the incident reported by Gothamist stand out is the law that applies-a law that dates all the way back to 1868. Long before skyscrapers dotted the Manhattan skyline, New York followed many other states in enacting what is called the Scaffold Law. Today, while every other state has abandoned the law, the law remains on the books in New York. The law imposes virtual absolute liability when an owner or contractor fails to provide adequate protection for workers engaged in certain “gravity related” risks. To be covered by the laws, a worker has to be engaged in a covered activity: “the erection, demolition, repairing, altering, painting, cleaning or pointing of a building.”

Courts have held that a fall from a ladder which is not secured that moved establishes a prima facie case entitling a claimant to a judgment under the Scaffold Law where there is no evidence of any other intervening cause of the accident.

Soto v. J. Crew

But a recent New York Court of Appeals case limited the scope of the Scaffold Law and drew a distinction between “cleaning” activities covered under the statute and cleaning in a more general sense. The case involved injuries allegedly suffered by an employee of a commercial cleaning company hired to provide janitorial services. The employee fell from a ladder while dusting a store shelf and claimed the ladder did not adequately protect him from a fall. The court determined that the services being performed by the employee could not be characterized as cleaning under the Scaffold Law; the work was routine in the sense that it was the type of job what would normally be done on a frequent routine basis as a part of the ordinary maintenance of any commercial site, did not esquire any specialized equipment of expertise, did not involve any more of an elevation risk than that inherent in typical household cleaning, and was unrelated to any ongoing construction, renovation, repair or alteration.

Any person injured as a result of a work-place accident is urged to seek experienced New York legal counsel, but this is particularly true if the injury is “gravity related” where the arcane Scaffold Law may apply.