Washington, D.C. – House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) issued the following remarks at the markup of the Infrastructure Expansion Act (H.R. 3808).
Chairman Goodlatte: I commend Representative John Faso from New York for introducing H.R. 3808, the Infrastructure Expansion Act, a commonsense piece of liability reform tied to federal funding in the context of federal infrastructure and housing programs. This bill, if enacted, would save billions of dollars in federal taxpayer money and facilitate the construction of much-needed infrastructure and housing projects.
Currently, New York is the only state that allows absolute liability against property owners and contractors for injuries sustained by construction workers through their own fault, including intoxication and failure to use provided safety equipment. That New York law—a statute referred to as the “Scaffold Law”—was originally enacted in 1885 when skyscrapers were first being built and no other worker safety regulations existed. Under that law, one category of injured workers — those who suffer “gravity-related” accidents—get the benefit of absolute liability not only against the worker’s employer—who is today already liable under workers’ compensation—but also against parties who often have little to no supervisory control over the project, such as property owners and general contractors. Absolute liability is imposed on these third parties with no limits on damages and no consideration of fault or of the disregard of instructions by the worker.
Because the Scaffold Law imposes such costly liability on those involved with federal infrastructure projects in New York, the costs of federally-funded projects that go through New York have soared, and these costs are passed on to federal taxpayers and the construction industry generally.
According to a 2013 study conducted by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a public policy research arm of the State University of New York, New York taxpayers spend $785 million annually for the insurance costs associated with public construction projects due to the Scaffold Law. The financial cost of the Scaffold Law is so large that the added cost of insurance in New York can tip the scales against a project altogether. For example, insurance costs associated with the Scaffold Law were so high that several disaster relief organizations gave up on helping New York families affected by Superstorm Sandy, choosing instead to help those in neighboring states. Habitat for Humanity of New York supports this legislation, saying in a letter to the editor of a New York paper that “Habitat for Humanity and our volunteer partners strive to create a safe environment for our staff, contractors and volunteers. The Scaffold Law has hindered our efforts to build in New York and should be reformed. The Times Union editorial board should support Congressman John Faso’s effort and the efforts of state legislators on behalf of worker safety, on behalf of civil justice and on behalf of all New Yorkers who struggle to find affordable housing.”
In 2014, Habitat for Humanity New York City wrote that “Many of our fellow non-profit recovery organizations have struggled to obtain necessary insurance coverage due to the availability crisis driven by … the ‘Scaffold Law.’ … Make no mistake – the Scaffold Law has directly and significantly hindered organizations’ ability to help hundreds of New Yorkers return home after Superstorm Sandy.”
H.R. 3808 would apply only where federal funds were used on an infrastructure project. In such cases, the bill would apply a comparative negligence liability standard to gravity-related injuries that occurred on such projects, a standard that considers the comparative negligence of the injured person, when such negligence is a proximate cause of an injury to a person. Today, every state uses some form of comparative or contributory negligence liability in tort cases generally. I will offer a manager’s amendment that will also allow courts to use a contributory negligence standard, thereby preserving all state law in this context and overriding only New York’s particular Scaffold Law when federal funds are involved.
I urge all my colleagues to join me in supporting this simple and fair reform legislation that will facilitate federal infrastructure projects, expand housing for the homeless, and save billions of dollars in federal taxpayer money.