Herrera sues contractor for exposing residents, unlicensed workers to asbestos and lead

Karnilowicz defied multiple SFDPH orders over ‘significant and imminent’ health hazards, repeatedly denied responsibility for work performed under his permits

SAN FRANCISCO (Oct. 1, 2014) — City Attorney Dennis Herrera today sued a local construction contractor for an array of unlawful business practices that includes obtaining permits for work illegally performed by unlicensed contractors, and for exposing residents and workers to the deadly carcinogen asbestos and, in one instance, lead — a potent neurotoxin known to be especially dangerous to children. The 66-page pleading filed in San Francisco Superior Court this morning details a years-long pattern in which Henry Karnilowicz defied multiple cleanup and abatement orders from San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, and routinely flouted state and local laws by holding himself out to be a “permit expediter” who is blameless for the illegal work performed under his permits that endangered public health and safety.

“The permits at issue in this case involve work to fix violations of housing, health and safety codes,” Herrera said. “Yet despite being the permit-holder and contractor of record for these projects, Mr. Karnilowicz flouted the law by allowing his unlicensed agents to perform the work without supervision in a way that actually exacerbated — rather than solved — serious health and safety issues. Beyond the housing violations, of course, are the grave occupational dangers to which these workers were subjected, possibly without even being aware of them. The law is clear that Mr. Karnilowicz’s business practices were illegal, and there is no exception in the law for ‘permit expediters.’ I hope today’s action puts an end to these egregious practices, and that it also sends a strong message to those who would consider similar wrongdoing that San Francisco takes housing, health and safety codes seriously, and that we’ll enforce the law aggressively.”

Herrera’s complaint outlines numerous provisions of state and local law that prohibit licensed contractors from obtaining permits to facilitate illegal and negligent work by unlicensed builders. Yet Karnilowicz appears to have repeatedly defied the law in at least some of the approximately 645 permits he obtained for plumbing, electrical and building work for San Francisco properties since January 2011, according to the complaint. If successful, Herrera’s lawsuit could exact significant civil penalties for the alleged wrongdoing, including: up to $5,000 per day for health code violations; $2,500 for each unlawful business act; an additional $2,500 for business violations that victimized the elderly or disabled; $500 per day for each violation of the San Francisco Electrical Code; and all attorneys’ fees and costs. Herrera is additionally seeking a court order to permanently bar Karnilowicz from continuing to flout housing codes, and to require him to inform city authorities of all contractors who perform work on the permits issued to him.

Today’s lawsuit names Karnilowicz, in his capacities as both a permit consultant and general contractor, and Occidental Express, Karnilowicz’s sole proprietorship, for wrongdoing at three San Francisco properties: at 250 Kearny Street, 56 Mason Street, and 481 Minna Street.

In September 2011, the San Francisco Department of Public Health found that construction at 250 Kearny Street, one of Karnilowicz’s permitted work sites, had caused significant lead and asbestos contamination to common areas. After ordering the property vacated due to the “significant and imminent nature of the health hazard,” DPH issued an Emergency Cleanup and Abatement Order to Karnilowicz as the contractor of record. Yet despite having identified himself as the project contractor on the building permit and in the Department of Building Inspection’s database — and despite having attested to being the general contractor for the project in a July 2011 appeal before the Abatement Appeals Board involving 250 Kearny Street — Karnilowicz denied responsibility for the work to DPH, and then refused to answer multiple requests to identify the contactors actually performing work. In stunning defiance of DPH’s cleanup order, Karnilowicz allowed construction work to continue under the hazardous conditions at 250 Kearny Street under his permit. He would similarly ignore five formal notices of violation DPH issued over the following year.

In 2011 and 2012, DPH pursued additional abatement actions against Karnilowicz for similar releases of asbestos at construction projects at 56 Mason Street and 481 Minna Street. Despite being similarly identified as the contractor of record for the projects, Karnilowicz asserted to city authorities that he was simply the permit expediter for the projects — and not the actual contractor.

Herrera’s lawsuit cites four general causes of action against Karnilowicz and Occidental Express: for non-compliance with DPH’s orders of abatement at the three properties; for maintaining a public nuisance at the three properties; for violating state housing laws; and for fraudulent business practices.

The case is: City and County of San Francisco and People of the State of California v. Henry Karnilowicz, DBA Occidental Express et al., San Francisco Superior Court Case No. CGC l4-541933, filed Oct. 1, 2014. The complete presskit is available on the San Francisco City Attorney’s website at: https://www.sfcityattorney.org/.

Related Documents:

PDF iconPDF of the San Francisco/People of California v. Karnilowicz complaint presskit (October 1, 2014)