Michael Weiss, the owner of Brooklyn-based RSBY NY Builders Inc. and Park Ave Builders Inc. has been charged with manslaughter and a variety of other offenses in connection to the death of one of his workers and the serious injury of two others after a 2015 Brooklyn building collapse. Prosecutors have presented information indicating that throughout Weiss’s involvement with the project, the cost was given priority over safety, while concerns went unheard, even on the day of the fatal building collapse.
Weiss and Unnamed Contractor Indicted for Brooklyn Building Collapse
Work began on the one-story building at 656 Myrtle Avenue in the summer of 2015, with Chaim Green, who owned the space, wishing to convert the building into a five-story apartment complex with space for a shoe store on the first floor.
According to city records, the contractor for the project was Y&S Framers, but prosecutors in the case against Weiss say that Weiss paid an unnamed person, who will also be charged with two counts of second-degree reckless endangerment, to sign the permits and insurance documents because Weiss’ companies did not have contractor’s licenses. It’s speculated that Shulem Leifer, the owner of Y&S Framers, is the one who signed the documents.
Authorities have said the name of the co-conspirator will be released once the individual has been arrested. If convicted, they could face up to a year in prison.
Numerous charges have been filed against Weiss, including second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree reckless endangerment, third-degree assault, third-degree grand larceny, and first-degree falsifying business records.
Prosecutors say that Weiss was directly responsible for his employees continuing to work in unsafe conditions, even after they repeatedly voiced their fears to him and asked for the proper equipment or more skilled workers to ensure their safety.
Weiss has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him and has been released on $100,000 cash bail. He will appear in court on August 9, 2017, and, if convicted, he could receive up to 15 years in prison.
Records Show Unpermitted Work and Unsafe Conditions
The area where Weiss’ employees were working when the Brooklyn building collapse occurred was an unpermitted excavation pit. A request made by Green to extend a storeroom to the back of the lot had been denied in the permit application, but the prosecution alleges that this did not stop Weiss, who began excavation of the area anyway.
The crew Weiss hired to do this work was small, allegedly only seven workers, none of whom had safety certifications and all with little to no training. The excavation was being carried out by shovel, and support for surrounding walls was not factored in. As they worked, Weiss’ employees came to him seeking materials to shore up surrounding walls (an OSHA requirement), but Weiss denied the requests.
On the morning of the September 3, 2015 Brooklyn building collapse, one of Weiss’ workers told his supervisor and Weiss that there was a crack in the wall of the adjacent building that needed to be supported. Again, the request for support was denied, and at 11:32 a.m., that wall collapsed and three workers were trapped underneath the cinder blocks. One of those workers, Fernando Vanegaz, was killed.
18-Year-Old Worker Killed in Structure Collapse Spoke of Danger at Site
Vanegaz was only 18-years-old and had been in the United States for less than a year. Vanegaz had come to the U.S. to be with his parents, and according to his mother, Enma Ulloa, he “really wanted to work.” The conditions at 656 Myrtle Avenue, however, were something Vanegaz couldn’t ignore.
His mother says that Vanegaz would often tell her of close calls where he feared something dangerous would happen, and one day he told her of a retaining wall that had nearly fallen. It’s believed that the retaining wall he had told her of was the same one that would ultimately be responsible for Vanegaz’ death. Left to grapple with Vanegaz’ passing, his parents still want to know what could have been done to prevent the tragedy.
“We can’t let the accident stand as it happened,” Olmedo Vanegaz, Fernando’s father, said in an interview with the New York Times in 2015.
Two other workers were trapped with Vanegaz under the debris from the Brooklyn building collapse. One fractured his lumbar vertebra and hip and injured his spine, and the other also fractured his lumbar vertebra, as well as his rib, nose, skull, orbital area, and other facial bones. Additionally, his face and scalp were crushed.
Both men underwent at least one surgery and say they continue to deal with pain from the accident, and that physical activity is a challenge.
Construction Deaths Common in Booming Market
Incidents like the Brooklyn building collapse are becomingly distressingly common as developers and contractors look to tap into a profitable market while minimizing their costs. Increasingly, construction site deaths are linked to safety procedures that were foregone in favor of saving money. Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, speaking for the prosecution, said that Weiss blatantly ignored the safety of workers in the project.
“It was obvious to everyone that it was a potential death trap, [Vanegaz’] death was absolutely foreseeable,” Gonzalez said. “The corners that Weiss cut led to a wall collapse that killed one of his workers and seriously injured two others.”
In February of 2017, a record $227 million settlement was reached in the Central City building collapse lawsuit in Philadelphia. Six people were killed in that collapse, which occurred on June 5, 2013, and the jury found all defendants in the case to be liable, with the majority of the liability being assigned to the building owner, who was deemed to have hired unqualified workers for the building demolition in order to cut costs.
According to the New York Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters, there have been 33 construction deaths in New York from 2015 to 2017.