Contractor sues Columbia after getting fired at fatal construction site

By Adam Pincus | June 04, 2012 06:00PM

A Brooklyn-based contractor that was once connected to organized crime is hitting back at Columbia University with a lawsuit after the school fired it from a demolition project following a fatal accident.

Breeze National — a demolition firm that’s torn down high-profile structures such as Shea Stadium in Queens — alleges in a suit filed Friday in New York State Supreme Court that Columbia wrongfully terminated it without cause after a worker was killed in a March accident at the school’s Manhattanville development site.

In addition, the suit claims that the school made inaccurate comments to city officials that, in part, blamed the company for the deadly incident.

The lawsuit is the latest development in the case, which centers on a March 22 accident where one worker was killed and two others were injured. Breeze National, which is based in Red Hook, was in the process of demolishing eight buildings as part of the university’s Expansion On West 131st Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive at the time of the accident.

After the incident, the city’s Department of Buildings issued a stop work order, which remains in effect, according to the agency’s website. While the demolition has been halted, other work continues at the site, a source familiar with the project said.

Columbia — through its construction manager Lend Lease, which recently came to a major fraud settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn — signed a contract last August to pay Breeze about $2.54 million to tear down the eight buildings in three phases.

Columbia, Lend Lease and DOB all signed off on the demolition process.

The fatal accident took place after a worker cut a structural steel beam. In its complaint, Breeze alleges that the poor construction design in the approximately 100-year-old building prompted the collapse. The firm cited two reports conducted to determine the cause of the accident to back its claims.

Breeze was notified on April 13 — after a private meeting between Lend Lease, Columbia and DOB – that it would be fired, according to court documents. The firm claims that removing it from the project was just an attempt by Columbia to save face.

“The true reason,” the complaint says, for “Columbia’s improper attempt to terminate Breeze from the contract was to publicly ‘distance’ [itself] from negative publicity.”

In addition to removing Breeze from the project, Columbia made “additional disparaging and damaging statements, remarks and insinuations to others that shall be revealed through discovery in this lawsuit,” the complaint continues.

The demolition company is seeking $581,662 in damages.

City officials in 2010 and federal court testimony in 1992 linked company founder Toby Romano Sr. to organized crime. He was convicted in 1988 on federal bribery charges and sentenced to a year in jail.

His son Toby Romano Jr. now serves as president of the company, and elder Romano currently has no interest in the company, an employee of Breeze told The Real Deal. The company did not respond to requests for comment on the suit.

Columbia declined to comment.