Construction Companies’ Owner Is Charged in Laborer’s Death
The owner of two Brooklyn construction companies was charged with manslaughter on Wednesday because the authorities said he ignored complaints about a poorly maintained retaining wall that collapsed at a work site in 2015, killing an 18-year-old laborer and injuring two others.
The companies’ owner, Michael Weiss, 47, was also charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of the laborer, Fernando Vanegaz, an immigrant from Ecuador. In an indictment issued in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, Mr. Weiss was further accused of reckless endangerment, assault, grand larceny, tax fraud and falsifying business records. He could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of the charges.
Mr. Weiss pleaded not guilty to all the charges and was released on bail.
“Fernando Vanegaz should be alive today,” Eric Gonzalez, the acting Brooklyn district attorney, said at a news conference announcing the charges. “Construction site deaths such as his are becoming all too common as builders ignore safety protocols and hire untrained workers to maximize profits.” Mr. Gonzalez added, “We cannot allow this robust housing market to come at the cost of worker safety.”
According to the indictment, on Sept. 3, 2015, Mr. Weiss ordered several employees of his companies, RSBY NY Builders Inc. and Park Ave Builders Inc., to conduct excavation in an area of a lot at 656 Myrtle Avenue where they had not received permission from city buildings officials to work. Despite repeated requests from his workers — and federal regulations requiring him to do so — Mr. Weiss did not provide materials to shore up an exposed wall of a building adjacent to the site, which his companies were converting from a one-story fruit store to a five-story structure intended to house a shoe store and apartments, the indictment said.
Shortly before noon that day, a wall of the adjacent building gave way, sending a cascade of masonry blocks and debris onto three of his workers. Mr. Vanegaz, who had been in the United States for less than a year, died; two others were injured.
The death came amid a surge in fatal construction accidents in New York, and Mr. Gonzalez said on Wednesday that 33 workers had died in the five boroughs since January 2015. That spate of deaths prompted a crackdown on shoddy builders both by local district attorneys’ offices and by the city’s Investigation Department, which assisted in the inquiry into Mr. Weiss.
“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,” Mark Peters, the commissioner of the Investigation Department, said at the news conference. “In this case, the warnings were clear, but the defendant disregarded them at a deadly cost.”
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