The Real Deal New York

Construction firm pleads guilty to manslaughter in worker’s death at site of FiDi condo project

Company also admitted to insurance fraud
By Kathryn Brenzel | July 13, 2018 12:01PM

161 Maiden Lane

A long-troubled concrete subcontractor pleaded guilty on Friday to charges related to the death of an employee at a Lower Manhattan condominium tower last year.

SSC High Rise Construction pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter, stemming from the death of Juan Chonillo in September. Chonillo fell from the 29th floor of 161 Maiden Lane, an 80-unit condo tower being developed by Fortis Property Group. Officials said at the time that he was wearing a harness, but it wasn’t attached to anything. In an announcement released on Friday, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said Chonillo had unhooked his harness to fix a scaffolding platform that became stuck. An SSC foreman had ordered workers to move the platform despite the fact that five workers were still on the unit, according to officials. The city’s building code bars a platform from being moved when workers are on top of it.

The company was also accused of stealing $517,000 in wages for overtime work between August 2011 and September 2017 and to under-reporting nearly $2 million in payroll in order to pay a lower insurance premium. As part of a plea agreement, SSC will pay $842,000 in restitution and a $10,000 corporate fine, the latter of which is the maximum penalty a company convicted of a felony can face in New York.

“SSC High Rise stole half a million dollars from vulnerable workers, and then robbed Juan Chonillo of his life,” District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement. “It is unthinkable that after a preventable tragedy like the death of Chonillo — a father of five — the company faces a maximum penalty of just $10,000. This is pennies on the dollar compared to the potential profits on a high-rise construction job in a booming real estate market.”

Representatives for SSC were not immediately available to comment on Friday.

In April, Fortis replaced SSC with another concrete subcontractor, RC Structures. Since the fatality in September, which shut down the site for several months, other issues related to pouring concrete on the site have halted work. In February, a concrete bucket grazed the 34th floor, causing some of the material to pour into the street and partially lifting part of the floor’s deck. The project’s general contractor, Pizzarotti, filed a lawsuit against SSC in May, alleging that the company abruptly stopped working on the project in March without notice.

SSC has run into trouble before. In 2011, SSC and its affiliates were ordered to pay $1.6 million in back-wages for allegedly withholding millions of dollars in employees’ overtime and paying different wage rates based on race.

Construction-related fatalities and fraud has been a focus of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office over the last few years. The office launched a construction safety task force in 2015. In June 2016, Harco Construction was convicted in the death of a construction worker at a site in the Meatpacking District. It was the first time in first manslaughter conviction of a construction company in the borough in recent memory.