The owner of a Bedford-Stuyvesant construction company and his businesses have been indicted on manslaughter and other charges after a wall collapsed at an excavation site, killing one construction worker and injuring two others.
“Construction site deaths such as his are becoming all too common as builders ignore safety protocols and hire untrained workers to maximize profits,” said Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez in a statement.
Gonzalez alleged in his statement that in this case, the builder went ahead with illicit excavation even after the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) explicitly prohibited it. The District Attorney identified the defendants as Michael Weiss, 47, of Throop Avenue in Williamsburg and his companies, RSBY NY Builders Inc. and Park Ave Builders Inc., both in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Weiss was arraigned before Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun on a 14-count indictment in which he is charged with second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree reckless endangerment, third-degree assault, third-degree grand larceny, fourth-degree criminal tax fraud, first-degree falsifying business records, offering a false instrument for filing, fraudulent practices under the workers’ compensation law and failing to secure workers’ compensation insurance. An indicted co-conspirator is also charged with two counts of second-degree reckless endangerment and will be arraigned at a later date.
Weiss was ordered held on bail of $250,000 bond or $100,000 cash and to return to court on August 9, 2017. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted of the top count. His co-defendant faces up to one year in prison if convicted.
“We have seen the tragic results on construction sites too many times when contractors ignore repeated warnings of danger and put the lives of workers at risk,” said New York City Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark G. Peters in a statement. “In this case the warnings were clear, but the defendant disregarded them at a deadly cost.”
The indicted co-conspirator was the owner of a construction company that had a safety registration with DOB with endorsements in concrete, construction and demolition, allowing his company to obtain permits from DOB to perform construction work in New York City. It is alleged that since Weiss did not have the appropriate licenses with DOB to apply for the necessary permits to perform the work, he paid the co-defendant $10,000 to sign the work permit applications and insurance certificates as general contractor.
According to the indictment, Weiss began working on the site in June 2015 after being hired by the building owners to replace a one-story fruit store with a five-story mixed use building that would house a shoe store and residential apartments. Weiss hired seven workers with little to no training and without OSHA safety certifications to do the demolition.
In late July 2015, the next phase of construction began in which the untrained workers dug trenches around the perimeter of the existing cellar for foundation structures in accordance with DOB-approved plans, though DOB was not notified of this excavation prior to the work beginning as required by the building code.
After the work began, Weiss instructed the workers to excavate beyond the approved area and in direct contradiction to the DOB-approved plans. Throughout the excavation, it is alleged that several of the workers complained to Weiss that the excavation was unsafe because the adjacent walls were unstable. Weiss repeatedly refused to provide any materials to shore up the wall and refused a request to hire experienced workers. He also allegedly told the workers they were working too slowly and ordered three workers, including the deceased, to work in the rear excavated pit. The wall of the rear adjacent building then collapsed and masonry blocks and other debris fell on three of the workers, killing one man and severely injuring two others.
The deceased worker, Fernando Vanegaz, 18, suffered severe head trauma, lacerations to his head, broken legs and cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead at the scene. A second worker suffered a fracture of the lumbar vertebra, a fractured hip and injury to his spine. He has undergone multiple surgeries and continues to have difficulty walking or engaging in physical activity. A third worker also suffered a lumbar vertebra fracture, a fractured nose and skull and orbital area, a crushed face and scalp, a fractured rib and other facial bone fractures. He had back surgery and continues to have difficulty with physical activity and suffers constant back pain.
“Fernando Vanegaz lost his life in a tragic and completely preventable accident,” said New York City Department of Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler in a statement. “The criminal charges against this contractor are a warning to other bad actors in the construction industry that no building is worth a life, that cutting corners on the job site has very real consequences and that if you fail to protect your workers, the city will come after you.”
Furthermore, the indictment states that Weiss failed to maintain workers’ compensation insurance coverage while employing seven construction workers at the site and then applied for coverage hours after the collapse. He also allegedly committed tax fraud by failing to report $75,000 in income on his state tax returns. Based on this unreported income, he owed state taxes of $4,310 and unlawfully received a refund of $3,686.
“All workers have a right to a safe and healthful workplace and all employers have a responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace for their employees,” said Occupational Safety and Health Administration Regional Administrator Robert Kulick in a statement. “When employers abandon their responsibility, the consequences can be devastating and irreversible.”
“Fernando Vanegaz should be alive today,” Gonzalez added.
An indictment serves as an accusation and not proof of a defendant’s guilt.
This case is being prosecuted by Senior Assistant District Attorney Samantha Magnani, of the District Attorney’s Frauds Bureau and Assistant District Attorney Meredith McGowan, Deputy Chief of the District Attorney’s Labor Frauds Unit, under the supervision of Assistant District Attorney Patricia McNeill, Deputy Chief of the District Attorney’s Investigations Division.
Source: Brooklyn District Attorney Press Office
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