BK construction firm faces manslaughter charge for death of worker

RSBY NY Builders is accused of ignoring safety issues
By Kathryn Brenzel | May 10, 2017 04:40PM

656 Myrtle Avenue and Michael Weiss (Credit: Brooklyn DA)

The owner of a Brooklyn construction company on Wednesday was indicted on charges of manslaughter in connection with the death of an 18-year-old worker.

Michael Weiss, 47, of Williamsburg, and his company, RSBY NY Builders, faces charges of second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and a slew of others, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office announced on Wednesday. Weiss is accused of ignoring glaring safety issues at a construction site in Bedford-Stuyvesant, actions that allegedly led to the death of Fernando Vanegaz in September 2015.

According to authorities, Weiss hired seven workers with little or no training to demolish a one-story fruit store at 656 Myrtle Avenue to make way for a planned five-story mixed-use building. During excavation work around an existing cellar, several workers warned Weiss that the site wasn’t safe because adjacent walls were unstable. Weiss allegedly ignored these warnings and refused to provide material to support the walls. On Sept. 3, 2015, an adjacent wall collapsed on three workers, killing Vanegaz and severely injuring two others.

Weiss’ LinkedIn indicates that he last worked for Royal Builders, but a representative for the company indicated that he is no longer employed there. An attorney for Weiss did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

“Fernando Vanegaz should be alive today,” Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a statement. “Construction site deaths such as his are becoming all too common as builders ignore safety protocols and hire untrained workers to maximize profits.”

Records also indicate that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration hit Weiss with a $77,000 fine after the building collapse.

Weiss is also accused of hiring another construction company to apply for permits with the Department of Buildings since he didn’t have the appropriate licenses needed for concrete and demolition work. He allegedly paid an unnamed co-conspirator $10,000 to apply for the work permits on his behalf. Representatives from the Brooklyn DA’s office would not confirm if the general contractor listed on building permits was the alleged co-conspirator. A message for the general contractor was not immediately returned.

Bail for Weiss was set at $250,000 bond or $100,000 cash. He faces up to 15 years in prison. His next court appearance is slated for Aug. 9.

It’s fairly rare for a construction company to be convicted of manslaughter in New York City. In June, a judge found Harco Construction guilty of manslaughter in the death of a worker at the Restoration Hardware site. The conviction was described as Manhattan’s first against a construction company.

Authorities have been ramping up safety enforcement and mulling new legislation as reports of construction accidents in the city continue to pile up. According to a report the city released in September, the number of construction-related accidents hit 500 in fiscal year 2016, compared to 314 the previous year — a 59 percent jump and a more than 200 percent increase from 2012.