Employers as Criminals

June 11th, 2008 by

William Lattarulo owns several buildings and vacant lots in Brooklyn NY. Back in March, his workers were digging a foundation for a commercial laundry at 791 Glenmore Ave, when a more experienced contractor warned Lattarulo of an immediate hazard: the excavation had reached a level below the foundation of the adjacent building. He advised Latturo to install underpins to make the excavation site more stable.
Instead of stopping the work, Lattarulo ordered his employees to keep digging. Moments later, the wall of the adjacent building collapsed, crushing Louro Ortega, a 30 year old laborer who had been on the job just two days.
“I don’t think I killed that kid,” Lattarulo is quoted as saying. “They’re just looking for someone to blame for all this” (an apparent reference to the spate of construction-related fatalities in the city).
The attorney for Ortega, Kenneth Halperin, says the accident never should have happened. “They failed to make sure the foundation wall was stable. No one checked anything.”
In the New York minute it took to snuff out the life of Louro Ortega, Mr. Lattarulo went from entrepreneur to defendant. He has been charged with manslaughter. Even if he is successful in avoiding jail time, he faces long and expensive days in court, trying to defend himself against charges of negligence.
Beyond Exclusive Remedy
Under most circumstances, workers comp offers the only recourse for a deceased employee and his family. Comp is an exclusive remedy. As we have blogged in the past, “substantial certainty” that an injury would occur is one of the factors that can help victims pierce the exclusive remedy shield. Lattarulo’s actions appear to be so egregious, so likely to result in bodily harm, the doors to tort liability have been thrown wide open.
For the time being, workers comp will cover the cost of Ortega’s funeral and provide his wife and two children with some modest level of support. Attorney Halperin will certainly not be content with that. He will pursue the big bucks that accompany criminal negligence. Mr. Lattarulo is about to learn that business owners can be held accountable for what in retrospect was an ad hoc and hasty decision. He thought he was just digging a hole for a new building. Through his dismal judgment, he dug a grave for an innocent worker and inadvertantly buried his own modest ambitions in the same rubble.