In rare conviction, US contractor held liable in construction death

Emergency workers search for Mr Luis Almonte Sanchez after a wall collapsed at a construction site in Brooklyn, on Sept 12, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK – Nearly five years after a construction worker was crushed to death by 15,000 pounds of building materials at a work site in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the contractor who oversaw the site was found guilty on Thursday of homicide, in a rare instance of a construction company being held criminally liable in the death of a labourer.

The death of the worker, Mr Luis Almonte Sanchez, 47, was a “preventable tragedy” that could have been avoided, said Mr Eric Gonzalez, the Brooklyn district attorney, had the operator followed safety protocols or addressed repeated warnings about unsafe conditions.

The conviction, Mr Gonzalez said, “should send a strong message that when contractors cut corners and put their workers’ safety at risk – they will face serious and criminal repercussions”.

The verdict, which was first reported by The City, comes just months after Governor Kathy Hochul signed a long-pending bill known as Carlos’ Law, which is designed to better protect construction workers, who frequently do dangerous work with few safeguards. The legislation dramatically raised the fines faced by corporations for construction accidents that result in criminal convictions, to up to US$500,000 (S$672,000).

The law was named after Mr Carlos Moncayo, 22, who was crushed to death by thousands of pounds of dirt at a Manhattan construction site in 2015.

“It makes us grateful that there is some type of enforcement going on here,” Mr Chaz Rynkiewicz, the vice-president of Local 79 of Mason Tenders’ District Council, a union that represents construction workers across the five boroughs, said in response to the verdict.

“Construction contractors that are non-union operate without any oversight because the workers are intimidated and scared to say something to their employer,” Mr Rynkiewicz added.

Operators of construction companies can be difficult to convict, in part because it can be hard to prove that their reckless or negligent actions led to the death or injury of a worker.

Jiaxi “Jimmy” Liu, 49, who operated the construction company, WSC Group Inc., was convicted on charges including criminally negligent homicide and tax fraud, and faces a maximum sentence of eight to 16 years in prison.

Wilson Garcia Jr., 48, the foreman, was convicted of criminal mischief and faces up to one year behind bars. Both will be sentenced next month.

Two other defendants also pleaded guilty: Jia Rong “Tommy” Liu, 52, the owner of the company, to petit larceny and Cindy Chai, 45, the bookkeeper, to tax fraud.

Between April and September 2018, construction workers employed by WSC Group Inc. performed demolition, excavation and foundation work at the Sunset Park site, prosecutors said. The workers were removing a one-story industrial building and replacing it with a four-story manufacturing and community facility that included an underground garage nine feet below the first floor.

Almonte was one of those workers. He had worked as a welder in the Dominican Republic, The City reported, and moved to the United States in 2016.

Prosecutors said workers had told Liu that the rear wall was unstable and additional support was needed. A resident of a nearby building complained that her patio and garage had caved in. But Liu never stopped work, nor did he notify the Department of Buildings.

Just days after the complaints, on Sept 12, 2018, a support system and an existing wall collapsed, trapping Mr Almonte, who was performing foundation work. He was struck by 15,000 pounds of building material and was buried by the debris.

The death of the worker, Mr Luis Almonte Sanchez, 47, was a “preventable tragedy” that could have been avoided, said Mr Eric Gonzalez, the Brooklyn district attorney. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Emergency medical workers weren’t able to recover his body until the next day, in part because of significant rain.

Prosecutors said the site was not in compliance with regulations from the Department of Buildings and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Liu and the other defendants failed to follow the design plans submitted and approved by the DOB.

Liu had faced a workplace lawsuit years earlier, too. The Department of Investigation and the Manhattan district attorney in 2015 charged 50 people, including Liu, of bribery. Liu pleaded guilty to third-degree attempted bribery and was sentenced to 38 days of community service and a US$5,000 fine.

Ms Terri Gerstein, the director of the State and Local Law Enforcement Project at the Harvard Law School Center for Labour and a Just Economy, said she hoped Thursday’s verdict made “employers in general, and construction contractors in particular, sit up and take notice.”

“There has been an upsurge of prosecutors across the country, taking an interest in workplace justice,” Ms Gerstein said.

That includes in the construction industry, she said, in part, because the industry is one “that does have a high rate of workplace violations of a range of laws.”

The verdict in Mr Almonte’s case also comes one week after the Manhattan district attorney’s office charged a pair of twins and their construction company, 3 Brothers, with stealing US$7,500 from two workers and assaulting them once the workers asked about the wages. NYTIMES

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