A 16-year-old boy dies in a trench collapse in Virginia. A 47-year-old man dies in an excavation in New York City when a wall collapses on him.
Both deaths could have been prevented, investigators say.
Both deaths have resulted in manslaughter charges being filed this month against the contractors on the projects.
They are the latest examples of local law authorities willing to step in to seek criminal charges against contractors for employees working in unprotected trenches and excavations. In August, a Colorado contractor was charged with manslaughter in the death of a worker in a trench collapse in 2018. And on October 31, a Boston plumbing contractor was found guilty of manslaughter in the death of two workers in a cave-in 2016.
Too young to be in a trench
At 16, Spencer Lunde was the youngest of five children and was spending his summer doing construction work. On July 23, he was in a trench on a gas line project with another worker in a residential development in McLean, Virginia.
“Due to his age, he should not have been at the worksite conducting the type of work that he was doing,” Fairfax police 2nd Lt. Richard Buisch told NBC News 4.
Federal law allows 16-year-olds to work in construction; however, it bans them from working in trenching or excavation.
The trench was dug at nearly a 90-degree angle down, with no shoring, trench box or other protection in place, according to media reports.
When emergency responders arrived at 3:15 p.m. to the collapse, they found Lunde and another man inside the trench. The man was injured and survived, but Lunde died at the hospital, according to the Fairfax County Police Department.
Questions immediately surrounded the case. Why was someone so young inside a trench? Why had it not been properly protected against cave-in?
The case was assigned to the police department’s Major Crimes Bureau, which worked with the state labor department to investigate the incident.
The Center for Progressive Reform, which has pushed for local prosecutors to file criminal charges in trench-collapse deaths, wrote the Fairfax Commonwealth Attorney’s Office requesting it to also investigate.
“Trench collapses are always preventable,” says the CPR letter of August 19. “It is widely understood, both inside and outside of the construction industry, that failure to secure a trench is highly likely to cause a death or serious injury when the trench collapses.”
On November 25, Thomas Digges, owner of Digges Development Corporation, was indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter and cruelty and injuries to children. Digges, 48, turned himself in and was released on his own recognizance.
Repeated warnings ignored, D.A. says
On November 21, four days before Digges was charged, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced manslaughter and other charges against construction company leaders and others on a project where a 47-year-old man was working in an excavation when a wall collapsed on him.
Luis Almonte Sanchez was in a 9-foot-deep, large excavation September 12, 2018, for an underground parking garage. The excavation extended to an existing masonry wall beside apartment buildings. The wall had some beams bracing it, but it was not enough. Workers and nearby residents had warned the WSC Group construction company that the wall was moving and needed further bracing, but the company’s leadership refused to stop work. Truckloads of dirt continued to be removed, according to the D.A.’s office. It was also raining heavily, causing the soil to become more unstable.
“The excavation was too deep, the underpinning system wasn’t installed properly and safe bracing procedures were not followed,” Gonzalez said.
At about 1 p.m., Sanchez was measuring an area for performing formwork when the soil beneath a foundation wall collapsed, and he was buried under dirt and debris, according to a report from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The company faces fines of $63,647 from OSHA, which WSC is contesting.
Sanchez “was struck by one of the underpinning pin sections, which weighed between 15,000 and 45,000 pounds and was buried under the collapsing debris,” Gonzalez said.
His body could not be recovered until the next day, because of the instability of the site.
The investigation also determined that members of the WSC Group had been involved in a previous incident in 2017 and 2018 in which a stop-work order was issued, yet work continued. Members of the company’s staff were also charged with fraud, allegedly lying about employees to defraud the New York State Insurance Fund of about $47,000 and not filing taxes between 2015 and 2018.
Facing second-degree manslaughter charges in the case are Jiaxi “Jimmy” Liu, who ran WSC; Wilson Garcia, WSC foreman; and Paul Bailey, site inspector with Bailey’s Engineering.
Siu Wah Maria Cheung-Mui, WSC superintendent, is charged with criminally negligent homicide.
Jia Rong “Tommy” Liu, WSC owner, is charged with grand larceny, along with Cindy Chai, WSC bookkeeper.
All pleaded not guilty.
“The people who were involved in this project were motivated by monetary reasons,” Gonzalez said. “They were willing to ignore the safety of their workers to advance how quickly they could get the job done and how much money they could make on this case.”
In announcing the charges, Gonzalez vowed to continue to pursue criminal cases against negligent construction firms.
“If you are a contractor at a development site and you take these kinds of shortcuts, you will face responsibility for your actions,” he said.
“You many find yourself indicted.”
For more on the business and human costs of trench-collapse fatalities in the United States, see Equipment World’s special report “Death by Trench”.