Who is Liable for Scaffold Accidents?

Most commonly, workers compensation will cover scaffold accidents and injuries, but sometimes a personal injury lawsuit is more appropriate.

More deaths occur in the construction industry every year than in almost any other industry in the United States. The leading cause of deaths in the construction industry is "falls," a category that includes falls from scaffolds. As a result, unsafe scaffolding is a significant source of lawsuits by construction workers and their families, seeking compensation for the death or personal injury of the worker.

Workers’ compensation laws sometimes limit the economic recoveries of employees who are injured on the job, including in scaffolding-related accidents. Special rules apply when workers’ compensation laws are involved, and those rules are discussed extensively in other articles on this site.

This article discusses scaffold accident cases that do not involve issues of workers’ compensation. We'll provide an overview of safety standards applicable to scaffolding, and then describe what you'll need to show in order to win a case for personal injuries based on a fall from a scaffold.

Scaffold Safety Standards

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations on scaffold safety are generally considered an authoritative source on how to safely construct, maintain, and use scaffolds. Those regulations are not the only published guide on scaffold safety, however. States may pass their own regulations on what constitutes a safe scaffold. Also, private organizations sometimes publish scaffold safety standards. Violations of any of these published regulations or standards can often be used as evidence in a personal injury case resulting from an unsafe scaffold.

Below are a few of the most commonly-violated OSHA safety regulations on scaffolds:

  • A scaffold should support at least four times the anticipated necessary weight.
  • A scaffold should never be supported by loose objects, such as barrels or loose brick.
  • All planking should be overlapped by at least 12 inches.
  • Planks should extend over their end supports between 6 and 18 inches.
  • Overhead protection should be provided when work is being conducted overhead.
  • Tools, materials, and debris should not be allowed to accumulate on a scaffold.
  • Shore scaffolds and lean-to scaffolds are prohibited.

Lawsuits Resulting From a Fall From a Scaffold

In order to win a person injury lawsuit for harm caused by a fall from a scaffold, a worker must prove three elements:

  • that the defendant had a duty to provide for the safety of the worker
  • that the defendant breached that duty, and
  • the breach caused harm to the worker.

In order for a worker to prevail in a lawsuit against a defendant, the defendant must have had a duty to provide for the safety of the worker. Not every entity involved in a construction project has such a duty. Laws are complicated and can vary by state, but generally speaking any party that provides, maintains, or moves scaffolding has a duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of workers.

Also, any party that exercises sufficient decision-making power at a construction site may have a duty to protect workers' safety, and that duty might extend to scaffold safety. So, if the owner of the building regularly directs and oversees workers, that owner may be liable for a fall from an unsafe scaffold.

A breach of the duty of care is any failure by the defendant to properly provide for the safety of a worker. Any violation of the OSHA regulations discussed above will generally be considered a breach of the duty of care. Any other violation of a safety standard generally accepted in the industry or recommended by experts may also amount to a breach of the standard of care. For example, if a general contractor is responsible for providing safe scaffolding at a construction site and a scaffold collapses, injuring a worker, the general contractor probably breached a duty of care. We know that this is likely, even without knowing why the scaffold collapsed, because safety standards require scaffolds to support four times the intended weight and to rest on sturdy supports. So, it is difficult to imagine how a scaffold would collapse if the safety standards were met.

In personal injury cases the most common types of damages include:

  • medical expenses
  • lost wages (for time missed from work due to the injury)
  • pain and suffering, and
  • loss of normal life (the decreased quality of a person’s life as a result of the injury).

(Compensation in a personal injury claim is generally much greater than what is available from a workers compensation claim.)

It is critical that the damages were actually caused by the defendant’s negligence. So, if a worker were to fall off of a scaffold and report an injured back, the defendant would probably not be liable for the injury if the worker’s back was already injured prior to the fall. The fall must have actually caused the injury for the defendant to be liable. Of course, if the fall made a pre-existing medical condition worse, the defendant would still be on the hook for damages, this would simply become a key point of contention during settlement negotiations.

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