NYC Contractor Faces Homicide Charges in Cave-In Death

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By John Herzfeld

A New York City contractor was charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other felonies in the aftermath of a fatal wall collapse at a Brooklyn construction site, prosecutors announced.

Michael Weiss and his companies RSBY NY Builders Inc. and Park Ave Builders Inc. faced arraignment May 10 before Justice Danny Chun of state Supreme Court for Kings County on a 14-count indictment. A co-conspirator is charged with reckless endangerment and hasn’t been arraigned, prosecutors said.

The case is the latest bid by New York City prosecutors to pursue criminal charges against construction contractors and supervisors in fatal workplace accidents.

The charges stemmed from an investigation into a September 2015 collapse of a wall at an excavation site that killed an 18-year-old construction worker, Fernando Vanegaz, and severely injured two co-workers. Prosecutors said the work was being done in defiance of city Buildings Department permit restrictions and numerous warnings that it was unsafe.

Workers at a site in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn were replacing a one-story building with a five-story building when Weiss ordered them to excavate a part of the lot in an area not covered by the permit, according to the charges.

The workers had been asking for months for material to shore or underpin the excavation and adjacent exposed walls, requests they repeated just hours before the collapse, prosecutors said.

OSHA Violations

Weiss refused the requests, in violation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements for shoring or stabilizing excavations, and wouldn’t listen to the safety concerns of his workers, insisting they continue working in an unsafe area, the case alleged. The workers were crushed by falling masonry blocks and other debris in the collapse.

The indicted co-conspirator was allegedly the owner of a construction company with a valid Buildings Department safety registration who served as a front for Weiss by posing as the project’s general contractor.

The seven workers hired by Weiss had little or no training and lacked OSHA safety certifications, prosecutors said. He refused requests by the workers to hire an experienced crew, they charged.

On the day of the collapse, prosecutors said, Weiss again refused workers’ requests for shoring materials to brace a cracked wall. He allegedly told the workers to work faster and ordered the three workers into the excavated pit.

Workers’ Comp Charges

Weiss also was charged with failing to maintain workers’ compensation insurance coverage and then applying 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.

The charges were announced by acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, OSHA Regional Administrator Robert D. Kulick and city officials. The case is ( People v. Weiss , N.Y. Sup. Ct., No. 0282-2017, arraignment 5/10/17 ).

In a statement, city Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters said: “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. In this case the warnings were clear, but the defendant disregarded them at a deadly cost.”

An attorney for Weiss didn’t respond May 11 to a request for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: John Herzfeld in New York at jherzfeld@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

For More Information

The charges are at http://src.bna.com/oNy.

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