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Michigan Construction Company Convicted of 'Willful Criminal Felony Violation' in Landmark Worker Safety Case

Lanzo Construction Co. was sentenced to two years' probation in Oakland County's (Michigan) Sixth Circuit Court for an unprecedented Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration-related criminal conviction resulting from a 1999 workplace fatality.

The Roseville, Mich., company was found guilty on Oct. 21, 2004, by Judge Colleen A. O'Brien for the 1999 workplace death of Robert James Whiteye in a trenching collapse.

"This conviction sends a clear message to employers that worker safety is a priority in this state and employers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law if they put workers' health or safety at risk," said Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, who first brought the case when she served as the state's attorney general. "This MIOSHA conviction is the first of its kind in terms of worker protection in the state of Michigan."

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) investigated the May 24, 1999, cave-in that killed Whiteye and found that Lanzo Construction Co. violated the most basic provisions of the MIOSHA trenching standard. MIOSHA is part of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth.

Based on provisions in the MIOSH Act, Public Act 154, every willful violation that is connected to a fatality is referred to the Michigan Attorney General's Office for criminal investigation or prosecution.

"The fatality investigation revealed extremely dangerous excavation conditions," said Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth Director David C. Hollister. "The court has reaffirmed MIOSHA's founding authority: that employers are required by law to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards. Lanzo Construction Co. willfully and recklessly sent Robert Whiteye to work in an unprotected trench &endash; a trench that tragically claimed his life. This disgraceful conduct will not be tolerated."

On May 24, 1999, a crew from Lanzo Construction Co. was installing sewer pipe when a cave-in occurred on Lake Ravines Drive in Southfield. Whiteye, 52, a pipe layer, was pronounced dead at the scene after rescuers worked for several hours to extricate him from the trench. The fatality occurred in an area of the excavation that was approximately 18 feet deep, with vertical walls, and without any protection to guard against cave-ins.

Lanzo Construction Co. was convicted of the MIOSHA Willful Criminal felony violation. This conviction is unprecedented in that three other cases were settled with guilty pleas, whereas this case involved a full criminal trial.

The court found that Lanzo "consciously and callously neglected to train both the hourly and supervisory personnel in its worker safety rules, which failure led to the death of Robert Whiteye."

In her decision, Judge O'Brien said, "The conduct of the defendant's employees on the day of this fatality was, indeed, willful. Clearly, there was no 'justifiable excuse' for failing to slope, shore or otherwise protect the employees within the excavation on Lake Ravine Drive."

Lanzo Construction Co. and Vice President Angelo D'Alessandro were each charged with separate counts of involuntary manslaughter and a MIOSHA Willful Criminal violation. On Oct. 30, 2002, 46th District Court Judge Stephen C. Cooper bound over the company for trial on the two counts, and bound over D'Alessandro on the involuntary manslaughter count. On April 16, 2003, Circuit Court Judge O'Brien dismissed the charge against D'Alessandro.

The company is facing a $650,000 fine from the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth, and a civil lawsuit filed by the family is pending.

Lanzo has been in business for more than 35 years. Originated in Roseville, Mich., with offices in Detroit and Pompano Beach and Coral Gables, Fla., Lanzo employs more than 400 people and provides a range of construction services and contracting capabilities.

Company worksites in Florida and Michigan have been inspected 26 times in the past 10 years, with over 50 citations issued for violations of workplace safety laws.

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