Following a September 2015 collapse that killed a construction worker, an unlicensed contractor is now facing manslaughter, fraud and other charges in connection with the incident.
The defendant in the case is Michael Weiss, owner of two companies without contractor licenses, who oversaw a construction project at 656 Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn. According to prosecutors, Weiss had paid $10,000 to another, licensed contractor – apparently Shulem Leifer, the owner of Y&S Framers, which was the contractor on record with the city – to sign the permit and insurance documents for the project.
Even though the city had previously denied a request from the owner of the building to extend a cellar storeroom to the back of the lot, Weiss instructed his workers to excavate that area. On the morning of September 3, the workers notified Weiss of a crack in the wall of the adjacent building, and he denied their request for wood to stabilize it. Later that morning, the wall collapsed, killing construction worker Fernando Vanegaz and seriously injuring two other workers.
As a result of the incident, Weiss is now facing charges for manslaughter, negligent homicide, reckless endangerment, assault, grand larceny, falsifying business records and tax fraud. Another co-defendant, who has not yet been named, has also been charged with two counts of reckless endangerment.
Troubling safety concerns underlie this tragic case
Allegedly, Weiss’ team consisted of workers with little or no training, no safety certifications and little equipment. When the excavation portion of the project began, Weiss failed to notify the city and failed to reinforce the surrounding walls. Moreover, prior to the September tragedy, several other complaints had been raised about safety on the site, including one complaint that a barrier was unstable and that workers were not taking appropriate precautions regarding asbestos remediation.
What is particularly troubling about this case is that the evidence suggests Weiss knew of multiple serious safety concerns prior to the deadly collapse. According to prosecutors, workers at the dig site repeatedly asked Weiss for wood to shore up the walls because they were unstable, and one worker allegedly also asked him to hire better-trained people. On the morning of September 3, when Weiss was purportedly told of the crack in the adjacent wall, he not only denied the request for two-by-fours to stabilize the wall but actually ordered his employees to work faster, according to the indictment.
While Weiss’ alleged actions are particularly egregious, the unfortunate reality is that too many construction sites in New York are needlessly dangerous for workers. There’s a reason why contractors are required to go through the licensure process and notify the city of upcoming excavation: doing so protects workers. When contractors ignore safety concerns in the name of profit, workers pay the price – and they have the right to fair and just compensation in those instances.