A Construction Death on Billionaire’s Row Shines Light on NY’s Wrongful Death Law
Central Park Tower, a gleaming supertall condominium tower from Extell Development on Billionaire’s Row, made headlines recently with the opening of the new seven-story, flagship Nordstrom department store. The opening attracted thousands of shoppers and many tributes to the tower’s wavy architectural glass. But the fanfare obscured the tragedies of the workers that helped build the 1,550-foot-tall skyscraper.
The most violent of these stories was the death of Harry Ramnauth, a 67-year-old security guard who was crushed to death by a large panel of glass last year.
Ramnauth’s death, horrific in its details, opened the door to a new look at New York State’s outdated wrongful death law. In seeking an insurance payout, Ramnauth’s family must convince a judge that he suffered before he died. While the cause of his death is not in dispute, the Ramnauths and their lawyer can only win in court if they can prove the guard was conscious after being struck by a 2,300-pound piece of glass.
On the morning of May 26, 2018, Ramnauth was standing just inside the entrance of the construction site at 217 West 57th Street, working his regular shift for Eddington Security. At 10:25 a.m., teamster steward Mark Keisecker moved a piece of ductwork on the ground floor by the loading dock, according to an incident report compiled by Lendlease, the project’s general contractor. The ductwork was wedged in between a rack that held an 8’ by 14’ glass panel and a pallet of construction material. As he moved the ductwork, both the rack and the glass panel crashed onto Ramnauth, attracting the attention of nearby workers. Augustine Martinez, a colleague who rushed to help, said in a deposition that it took 15 to 20 workers to lift the glass off him, the New York Daily News reported.
They picked up the glass and the rack, pulled him out from underneath and began performing CPR. Another worker called 911. Within five minutes, a police officer arrived and continued doing compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until an ambulance made it to the building between Seventh Avenue and Broadway. An onsite medic also tried to keep Ramnauth alive.
When paramedics arrived 11 minutes later, at 10:36 a.m., Ramnauth was in cardiac arrest and “completely crushed,” with his right tibia and fibula protruding from his skin, according to an ambulance report cited by the Daily News. They transported him to Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital, where he was declared dead at 11:02 a.m., hospital records show. His official cause of death was “blunt force trauma to the neck and torso,” according to the autopsy report from the city medical examiner.
Ramnauth suffered multiple rib and pelvic fractures and blunt trauma to his head, neck and chest, according to Dr. Preety Chawla, a cardiologist who reviewed the guard’s autopsy. He didn’t experience any injuries that would have killed him instantly, the doctor argued in a court filing, and was probably conscious for six to eight minutes before he went into cardiac arrest. In short, he was likely in pain — and awake — for some time before EMTs arrived.
Extell Development, which built Central Park Tower, along with its contractors, Lendlease and Pinnacle Industries, don’t think he suffered. Insurance company AIG, which insured the entire project and is paying for attorneys to defend the contractors and developer, denied all of the Ramnauth family’s legal claims. Neither AIG’s attorneys nor an Extell spokeswoman returned requests for comment.
Ramnauth left behind his 68-year-old wife, Brijkumarie, and 45-year-old daughter, Anuradha. They sued AIG, Extell, Pinnacle and Lendlease for $4.75 million in October 2018. In arguing the case in the months following Ramnauth’s death, they’ve been faced with the abysmal task of ruminating over his final moments of pain and suffering. The family declined to comment for this story.
“One of the penthouses at Central Park Tower is listed as $95 million,” said Matthew Haicken, the attorney representing the Ramnauths. “I think they can afford to offer this family some money.”
The Ramnauth family’s case illustrates the problems with New York’s wrongful death statute, which has remained largely unchanged since it was passed in the mid-19th century. The law allows a victim’s relatives to recover money related to a victim’s lost inheritance or lost wages, the value of a lost parent for children, or conscious pain and suffering that a victim endured before death. Family members can’t, however, get financial compensation on the basis that they personally have suffered, which flies in the face of most states’ laws.
The family lives together in Queens Village with Anuradha’s children. Although Ramnauth supported his wife, daughter and grandkids, he was 67 years old and only earned $32,000 a year—so the value of his lost wages is low. And adult children who lose a parent tend to receive much lower payouts in court than underage children, who are considered legal dependents. So, the Ramnauth family’s best shot at getting compensation for Harry’s death is to prove that he experienced significant, conscious pain before he died.
“The longer that you live in agony, the more the case is worth,” Haicken said. “If you die instantly and there’s no pre-impact terror or suffering, your case is not worth very much.”
The largest payout in a similar wrongful death case, at least in recent years, went to the families of two construction workers who were crushed by a crane on West 91st Street in 2008. One family received $7.5 million for the suffering of a man who spent nearly 20 minutes alive and crushed beneath the wreckage of the crane.
While Ramnauth is the only worker who died at Central Park Tower, dozens have suffered injuries — which is unfortunately typical for a large construction project in New York City. A carpenter from a firm called Island Acoustics was even injured while he helped free Ramnauth; a piece of heavy construction material landed on his foot and he was sent to the hospital. In the spring, a contractor working on the heating and air conditioning systems was shocked and burned by an exposed wire in an open electrical box. A month or two prior, a worker was pulling a rack with a large piece of sheetrock on it out of an elevator when the rack fell and pinned him down; he suffered no serious injuries. Others have fallen off ladders or simply slipped on an icy patch and blacked out, Department of Buildings records show.
However, according to most measures, construction fatalities and injuries in New York City have decreased slightly in 2019, compared to the first nine months of 2018. (The most recent Department of Buildings data is through September 2019.) Eight workers have died on city construction sites in 2019, according to DOB numbers, compared to 10 deaths during the same period last year.
There have also been 460 injuries on job sites in 2019, down from 603 construction-related injuries through September 2018. The slight decrease comes as contractors across the five boroughs face a deadline for Local Law 196, which requires that every worker on a construction site receive at least 30 hours of safety training by December 1.
But the DOB’s fatality data is somewhat skewed by the fact that the agency only reports deaths related to a violation of the city’s construction code, as Commercial Observer has previously reported. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Association, however, tracks all workplace-related deaths.
On the legislative front, the New York State Trial Lawyers Association has lobbied to change the wrongful death statute for years. The group hopes to bring New York’s law in line with those of 41 other states that allow families to recover damages on the basis of their own grief and suffering.
The wrongful death law “disproportionately hurts low-income families because it only takes into account the earnings of the deceased,” the organization said in a statement. “In cases where the deceased is a minor, retired, physically unable to work, a stay-at-home parent, or holds a low-income occupation, the family is limited to only collect a judgement based on their earnings. Surviving family members are ultimately denied an opportunity to fully receive justice and negligent parties are able to largely escape accountability.”
State Senator Brad Hoylman has also introduced a bill that would amend the legislation to include family suffering for a wrongful death payout, but it has been stuck in committee since last spring. Hoylman said that he hopes to bring the bill to the floor when the senate returns to session in January.
“New York is pretty much an outlier among other states in not allowing pain and suffering to be part of compensation for loved ones that have lost a family member in a wrongful death case,” said Hoylman. “This is a deep social issue, that our law places a premium on an individual’s ability to earn a salary over the fact that family members may have lost someone who is going to care and nurture and provide emotional support to them forever.”
Blair Horner, the executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), has been pushing to modernize the state’s wrongful death law since the 1980s.
“While it’s understandable that the statute was written the way it was in the 1840s, human loss is not purely economic, and that’s why the statute needs to be modernized,” Horner explained. “American society [now] views individual suffering as important. It’s not right to have a straightforward economic analysis for the loss of a loved one when it’s someone else’s fault.”