Building Owner Charged with Manslaughter in Death of Construction Worker Loses Bid to Suppress Incriminating Statements

On March 12, 2008, the basement foundation wall of a two-story wood-frame residential building located at 795 Glenmore Avenue in Brooklyn collapsed into the construction site on the adjoining parcel at 793 and 791 Glenmore Avenue, causing the death of a construction worker who was working in the excavation site at the time of the collapse. The laborers were digging out the soil for the foundations and underpinnings when the wall collapsed. The owner of both the building and the construction site, William Lattarulo, stands charged with manslaughter in the second degree and reckless endangerment in the second degree.

The defendant’s Dunaway /Huntley/Mapp motions to suppress statements, five oral and one audiotaped, that he made before his arrest and the physical evidence recovered in his garage and the home was denied after an evidentiary hearing was held at the Supreme Court, Kings County, before Hon. Albert Tomei. People v. Lattarulo, — N.Y.S.2d —-, 2009 WL 3199208.

According to press reports at the time, Mr. Lattarulo was warned by workers and by a consultant that a trench that had been dug on his East New York site was unstable. The authorities said that the worker, Lauro Ortega, 30, suffocated when the tumbling dirt and debris rose to his chest, creating pressure so great that he could not breathe, even though his head remained uncovered.

Instead of hiring a contractor to supervise the work, Mr. Lattarulo supervised the work himself, saving $90,000, though he did not have the experience necessary for the task, and hired $100-a-day laborers like the victim, Mr. Ortega, an illegal immigrant from Ecuador. One reason the case is interesting is that the defendant’s statements sought to be suppressed were not statements made to police officers, and the physical evidence at issue was not seized by police officers.

Instead of the police, involved was the Chief Engineer Timothy Lynch of the Forensic Engineering Unit of the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB), Investigator Robert Miller of the Department of Buildings Special Investigative Unit (BSIU), Inspector General Michael Carroll and Assistant Inspector General Byron Biggerstaff, both of the Department of Investigation (DOI). Apparently, after obtaining the statements and physical evidence from the defendant, Investigator Miller first spoke with the District Attorneys Office about potential criminal liability on March 17, 2008.

The defendant’s statements that lead to his arrest and which he sought to suppress included an explanation given to BSIU Investigator Miller that at the time of the collapse, the workers were preparing the footings for the foundation of the two-story building under construction. There were some concerns about the brick foundation wall on the residential building. The wall appeared to be brittle and falling apart, so the defendant had covered it with a concrete stucco skim coat about two weeks earlier. The defendant was present at the time of the collapse. He said that he saw that the wall did not appear to be stable and told the workers to get out of the pit as the wall was falling down.

Another statement was given in response to questioning by Chief Engineer Lynch about what was going on at the time of the collapse: The defendant said that two or more laborers had been working on the job site at the time, but no engineer or architect was present. The controlled inspector was also not present, although he had been there on previous days.

The Court denied the defendants motion to suppress on grounds including that when he was being questioned he was not in custody and was free to leave at any time if he so chose. Under these circumstances, he was not required to be given Miranda warnings. The Court also found that the defendant’s musings that he might need a lawyer did not amount to the unequivocal request for counsel that is required in a non-custodial interview.

Thus the Court concluded that the defendant’s statements were freely and voluntarily given, free of coercion. As to the physical evidence, including a spiral notebook and a computer tower, the Court found that the same was obtained either pursuant to a search warrant or by the defendant’s consent given without coercion or threat. In addition to the prosecution against Mr. Lattorulo, the engineer who caused fraudulent plans to be filed with the Department of Buildings was indicted and charged with charged with Nine Counts of Offering a False Instrument for Filing in the First Degree. The indictment charges that in 2005, William Lattarulo hired an architect to design plans to build a laundromat at 791-793 Glenmore Ave, in East New York, Brooklyn.

The architect, in turn, subcontracted the excavation portion of the designs to H. who is a professional engineer with Sanchez Associated. However, H., who had previously lost his authority to self-certify architectural designs, used a stamp belonging to his partner, Luis Sanchez, to certify them in Sanchez’s name. He also placed Sanchez’s signature on several documents filed in support of Lattarulos applications for building permits. At the time of the incident, Sanchez was recovering from a severe brain injury and lacked the physical ability to review or certify architectural designs.

The personal injury lawyers at Levine & Slavit have decades of experience handling personal injury claims, including for workers injured at construction sites. For 50 years spanning 3 generations, we have obtained results for satisfied clients. Contact the personal injury lawyers at Levine & Slavit for their help. We have offices in Manhattan and Long Island, handling cases in New York City, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and surrounding areas. To learn more, watch our videos.

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