Morgenthau: Negligent Crane Riggers, Beware. Negligent Drivers, Carry On.

china_chalet_van.jpgNo charges have been filed against the driver responsible for the fatal China Chalet van crash. Photo: New York Times
Yesterday the Department of Buildings released a report faulting improper rigging in the March 2008 crane collapse that killed seven people on 51st Street. The rigger and his employer were indicted in January on charges of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, assault and reckless endangerment, City Room reminds us -- the result of a vigorous response from Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau:

The collapse, and another fatal crane accident three months later, led to a series of investigations by Mr. Morgenthau's office and the city Department of Investigation that exposed corruption and incompetence in the building agency’s Cranes and Derricks Division and led to several arrests.

That inquiry, as well as the death of two firefighters at the former Deutsche Bank tower, exposed missteps by the Buildings Department and other city, state and federal agencies and led to reforms and sweeping changes in how the city regulates and oversees construction.

Meanwhile, Morgenthau's office has sat on another case of deadly on-the-job negligence: the restaurant van driver whose three-ton vehicle killed two young children in Chinatown this January after he left it double-parked and idling. The driver could have prevented that fatal collision simply by turning off the ignition and setting the emergency brake, a far easier task than rigging a 22-story crane.

If Morgenthau's office should decide to pursue charges of criminal negligence in this case, it could help set an important precedent: that drivers should be expected to exercise greater caution in dense urban areas where their actions carry disproportionate risk.

At Monday's rally outside Morgenthau's office, Jon Adler, a representative for the victims' families, explained that the legal standard for determining criminal negligence hinges upon what a "reasonable person" would be expected to do in a given situation. "A reasonable person driving a vehicle of that nature would -- if they had to double-park it -- turn it off," he said. "The man made a conscious decision to leave that vehicle running, and he accepted the risk. The consequences of two children dying from him accepting that risk -- he didn't even get issued a summons. There is nothing done by the DA in terms of enforcement to act as a deterrent to any other driver doing the same thing."

In a city where sidewalks are full of people, residents need the force of law to protect them from the risks that accompany the operation of multi-ton vehicles. "If you look around where this occurred, it occurred on a crowded Chinatown street, so you have to take that into consideration," said Peter Goldwasser, staff attorney at Transportation Alternatives. "It wasn't a rural country road."