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Unlicensed NY Contractor Faces Manslaughter Charges

A Senseless Yet Predictable Tragedy Claims A Worker's Life

In a story that has echoes of the early industrial age - the time before workplace safety regulations - an unlicensed contractor faces manslaughter charges as a result of a teen worker's death.

In the latest development of the 2015 construction accident case which left one dead and two severely injured, New York contractor Michael Weiss has now been charged with criminally-negligent homicide, assault, grand larceny, reckless endangerment, tax fraud, and falsifying business records.

As reported in the New York Post, Weiss is accused of violating Building Department orders prohibiting excavation work at the site where the accident occurred. Evidence shows that he repeatedly cut corners, ignored the desperate pleas of his untrained employees when they requested reinforcements, and ordered them to excavate unauthorized areas. At the time of the incident, Weiss ordered several employees to conduct an excavation at 656 Myrtle Avenue - a site where he had not received permission from the NYC Buildings Department officials to work on. That reckless decision led to a tragic loss of life.

The Brooklyn site lacked even the most basic of safety equipment, such as underpinning, shoring or bracing of exposed walls. Sadly, a cracked wall fell onto three workers, resulting in the death of Fernando Vanegaz, an 18-year-old laborer from Ecuador, and catastrophic injuries to two other workers.

Weiss pleaded "not guilty" to the charges. He could face up to 15 years in prison if he is convicted of the top charges. Still, none of this will bring Mr. Vanegaz back.

Why Does This Keep Happening?

Vanegaz' death was entirely preventable, had Weiss followed city orders and safety protocols. Unfortunately, Weiss is not alone in his indifferent approach to the lives of construction workers - skipping safety procedures, failing to provide appropriate and safe equipment, and rushing timelines to maximize profit. This happens all throughout the metropolitan area, including high-profile New York City construction sites. In another well-documented case, general contractor Harco Construction was responsible for the death of Carlos Moncayo, a worker who was buried alive in a trench as a result of employer negligence.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "the private construction industry sector had the largest number of workplace fatalities in New York City". Specialty trade contractors accounted for 68 percent of these fatalities, demonstrating that even the most skilled workers are not safe from fatal accidents. The data suggests that the problem isn't limited to contractors like Mr. Weiss.

One theory comes down to the well-worn phrase "when the cat is away, the mice will play." We have written previously about the lack of proper inspections and the inability of underfunded regulators to keep up with our city's construction boom. Just this January the New York Daily News reported on the number of inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) falling during the same time frame that injuries and deaths were on the rise (2011-2015). The recent announcement that New York City's Department of Buildings is increasing site inspections after the tragic death of Jose Cruz last month is long overdue.

At Block O'Toole & Murphy, we fight for injured construction workers and their families. Unfortunately, incidents like this suggests there is a lot more work that needs to be done. For instance, stronger legislative support to improve worker safety laws would make a significant impact. Also, requiring more frequent safety inspections and providing the funding to add experienced safety inspectors will decrease the number of fatal and serious construction accidents. Our collective goal has to be to better protect our workers. If you or someone you love has been hurt as a result of negligence on a construction site, please feel free to call 212-736-5300 or contact us for a no-cost legal consultation.