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Scaffold Collapse: Causes and Legal Next Steps in New York

Accidents related to scaffolding continue to cause serious harm year after year. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), scaffolding accidents are linked to an average of 50 fatalities and 4,500 injuries per year.

Need To Know:

  • Multiple parties may be found at fault for a scaffolding accident, but by the time OSHA investigates an accident, the evidence may no longer be available for a variety of reasons.
  • An attorney specializing in scaffold collapse accidents will know exactly how to investigate and recover compensation for victims.
  • New York Labor Law 240, or The Scaffold Law, protects construction workers who experience gravity-related accidents. Despite its nickname, the law does protect workers from accidents outside of ones involving scaffolds.

In This Article:

The Perennial Dangers of Scaffolding

Scaffold collapses can easily threaten the lives of workers who rely on these surfaces to be stable and secure. Matching an overall trend in the construction industry, a major peril of scaffolding is workers falling from dangerous heights. A study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that in 2020, 52 workers tragically died after falling from scaffolds.

OSHA reports that 65% of construction workers—2.3 million people across the country—regularly perform their jobs on scaffolding. At many of these job sites, there is a harmful misconception (often promoted or perpetuated by management) that falling from a relatively low height, such as 10 feet or less, is unlikely to cause permanent damage. This could not be further from the truth.

As we have observed in past cases, the height of the fall does not solely determine the seriousness of the accident. Other important factors include the angle at which the person lands, the surface they land on, and which part of their body suffers the main force of the impact.

For these reasons, fall protection is an extremely important precautionary measure to limit the damage a scaffolding collapse can cause, regardless of the size or height of the scaffold. Certain forms of fall protection, outlined in OSHA’s general requirements for scaffolds, can be appropriate for different kinds of scaffolding.

General Regulations for Platform Strength

For all types of scaffolding, it is mandatory for platforms to support four times the maximum load planned for a project (in addition to their own weight).

To avoid the common mistake of overloading a platform, general contractors and owners should hire qualified personnel to engineer, erect, and maintain these surfaces. A general contractor should carefully evaluate the track record of any scaffold company to make sure that they use experienced workers, prioritize safety, maintain appropriate insurance, and do not have a history of being the cause of serious scaffold accidents.

Supported Scaffolds – The Importance of Stability

The hallmark of a supported scaffold is a frame that rests on the ground. Supported scaffolds include ladder jacks (platforms that stretch between two ladders), pump jacks (platforms that use vertical brackets), mast climbers (scaffolds specialized for height), portable scaffolds with wheels, and conventional frame scaffolds.

All of these require protocols to prevent tipping and careful attention to the stability of the base. In a case which Block O’Toole & Murphy settled for $9.75 million, we were able to prove that uneven flooring materials contributed to a scaffold falling on top of a worker.

People who work on supported scaffolds are legally entitled to a personal fall-arrest system (such as a harness) or adequate guardrails. In recent years, we have seen many glaring examples of supported scaffolds that lacked sufficient railings. Sometimes, rails will be present only on one side of the scaffold or run along two or more sides but still contain hazardous gaps.  Many scaffold accidents can be avoided if the scaffolds are constructed with proper guardrails.

In a similar pattern of negligence, construction companies build many scaffolds around New York City with platforms that are not uniform. For instance, wooden planks may not be connected all the way across the work area, leaving dangerous gaps and forcing workers to traverse unsafe openings in between these planks.

Poorly designed platforms, with flaws such as improperly placed planks, are more likely to lead to collapses. Why? When planks are not uniform, a company is gambling that fewer planks can support the same number of workers and weight that uniform, strong planks would have supported.  In sum, a lack of uniform planking being used as a scaffold platform can lead to a fall due to dangerous gaps in the platform and collapses due to structural instability.  The combination of a lack of uniform planks and missing guardrails has proven to be a recipe for disaster.

Suspended Scaffolds and Personal Fall Arrest Systems

A suspended scaffold hangs from a structure above it, such as being anchored to the roof of a building. These scaffolds can be multi-level, adjustable, and suspended from one or more points. A knowledgeable person should follow OSHA’s standards for using counterweights, outrigger beams, and tiebacks to mitigate collapses.

Suspended scaffolds require multiple forms of fall protection—guardrails and personal fall arrest systems. For the latter, collapses underscore the need for competent oversight. A competent supervisor will find a secure tie-off point for a worker’s harness that is not on the scaffold itself, knowing that if the scaffold collapses, a tie-off point on any part of its structure will prove to be useless.

Urgent Legal Steps After a Scaffold Collapse

From a legal standpoint, the biggest mistake in the aftermath of a scaffolding collapse is to delay the investigation. To fuel an effective prosecution, an experienced team should interview witnesses immediately and memorialize the scene.

When a construction worker is hurt, their coworkers might be the only people who saw the accident firsthand. All too often, these coworkers develop what some attorneys refer to unofficially as, “vocationally induced amnesia.” This describes a reluctance to remember the accident as it occurred, knowing that these details might adversely affect their employer and, by association, their jobs and livelihood.

A timely response also reduces opportunities for defendants to alter any evidence. OSHA and local authorities will typically investigate the scene of a serious scaffold collapse. By the time they arrive, however, the scaffold might be disassembled, moved to a different location, or secreted in some way that obscures the cause of the accident. Defendants who do this can claim ignorance (or even claim good intent, such as wanting to fix faulty equipment).  Well-intentioned or not, it complicates your ability to prove that the scaffold was unsafe.

Finally, prompt legal guidance is crucial to prepare injured construction workers for the manipulative tactics of certain unsavory employers. Most frequently, employers alter the narrative around a serious construction accident. What are we referring to?  For months or years, employers will let construction workers suffer the low pay and inferior safety conditions that generate the most profit. Once a worker is injured, however, an entirely new narrative is offered: the employer claims that the worker acted recklessly and was hurt because they did not follow instructions.

Sometimes, a veil of sympathy makes this kind of deception even harder for a worker to spot. For example, an employer will offer to cover medical bills while encouraging the injured worker not to file a claim. Others will attack a worker’s standing in the country.  A worker will transition, in the words of his employer, from a “hard worker” before the accident to “an illegal” once their scaffold collapses. To predict these kinds of tactics and stand up against them, a victim must consult an experienced scaffold accident attorney.

Workers vs. Pedestrians Under New York Law

In New York, Labor Law 240—or The Scaffold Law—protects construction workers who experience gravity-related accidents. These accidents do not have to specifically involve scaffolding. Supportive structures like stairs are included. In a recent case handled by our firm, a man fell just 5.5 feet from a staircase, but his injuries were extensive and life-altering. He was protected by New York Labor Law 240, and for his injuries, this construction worker recovered $2 million.

If a scaffold collapses onto someone else nearby, such as a pedestrian, cyclist, or motorist, the law is quite different. For instance, we recently encountered a case where a client was sitting in his car, and scaffolding came crashing down on him. As he was not a construction worker on the job site, this plaintiff was not covered by Labor Law 240. Instead, his case relies on principles of typical negligence: was there a responsibility to keep him safe? Did the defendant(s) fail that responsibility?

Fortunately, this legal framework can be effective unless there is an “act of god.” In the context of a scaffold collapse, this could mean (for example) an unpredictable gust of wind that triggered the scaffold to fall. It is worth noting that if strong winds were forecasted, the defendant would have much more difficulty claiming that the accident was an act of God because they arguably had a chance to weatherproof their equipment.

Who is Liable for a Scaffold Collapse?

In a scaffolding collapse case, there is generally more than one named defendant. In addition to the building owner and the general contractor, another party may have manufactured or assembled the scaffold.

These parties do not erase the responsibility of the general contractor and owner, but if they were at fault in some way, they might share some responsibility. For a client harmed by a scaffolding collapse, the potential compensation owed to them might come from several different sources.

Proven Advocacy for Scaffold Collapse Victims

Whether you are a construction worker, a pedestrian, or a loved one of someone harmed by a scaffolding collapse, immediate legal guidance is the key to obtaining fair compensation.

The scaffolding accident attorneys at Block O’Toole & Murphy are proud to offer their expertise in this arena combined with decades of success. Some results we have obtained for clients injured by scaffolding collapses include:

  • $6,080,408 verdict for a union laborer who suffered career-ending injuries after scaffolding collapsed underneath him
  • $3,000,000 settlement for an electrical worker who fell approximately 15 feet following the collapse of a ladder and scaffold
  • $1,325,000 settlement for a 24-year-old who sustained multiple fractures from a scaffolding collapse

To speak with one of our skilled New York construction accident attorneys today, call 212-736-5300 or fill out our contact form online.

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