It's one of the oldest worker-protection statutes in the nation: passed in 1885, New York State's "Scaffold Law" has stood for almost 130 years. "But a lobby of contractors, property owners and insurers has in recent months renewed a campaign against the law, arguing that no less than the future of the state's construction industry is at stake," the New York Times reported this month (for the full Times story, see: "Contractors and Workers at Odds Over Scaffold Law," by Kirk Semple). "They argue that the law is antiquated and prejudicial against contractors and property owners, and essentially absolves employees of responsibility for their own accidents, leading to huge settlements. The payouts, they contend, have in turn led to skyrocketing insurance premiums that are hampering construction and the state's economic growth."

Since this is New York, the fight over repealing, keeping, or even strengthening the Scaffold Law is a media war. Opponents have their own website, "Get New York Building," and they're mounting a TV and radio advertising blitz to change the law. Their message: "It's time for fat cat lawyers to stop taking middle class construction jobs!"

Unlike a typical workers' compensation insurance law, the Scaffold Law has no upper limit on damage awards. At the same time, it holds employers strictly liable for injuries on the job — judges and juries can't consider contributory negligence on the part of the worker as a factor. That's the element that a state bill to reform the law would change. Critics say the language of the law makes winning a personal injury case for a worker who falls off the staging like shooting fish in a barrel. An analysis by the New York Law Journal (see: "Top New York Settlements of 2012") found more than a dozen of the top 30 million-dollar liability awards in the state in 2012 involved labor law — mostly cases of workers falling from a height.

Lawmakers aren't all convinced. "State Assemblyman Francisco P. Moya, a Democrat who represents a heavily immigrant and Latino area of Queens, said he planned to submit a bill that would expand reporting requirements for insurance companies and help lawmakers assess whether the Scaffold Law needed to be changed." Said Moya: "Show us how much the payouts are. Once we see that, we'll have a better understanding."