Thursday, April 26, 2012

Not Guilty Verdict in Crane Collapse Trial

April 26, 2012

Crane Owner Acquitted of All Charges in 2008 Collapse

James Lomma
The owner of a crane company was acquitted on Thursday of all charges in connection with the collapse of a tower crane in Manhattan nearly four years ago that killed two people.
Justice Daniel P. Conviser of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, who heard the case without a jury, gave no explanation as he declared the owner, James F. Lomma, and his companies not guilty of all four charges they faced, the most serious of which was second-degree manslaughter.

The family of the two construction workers who died, Donald C. Leo and Ramadan Kurtaj, reacted with dismay. 

“Wow,” whispered Xhevahire Sinanaj, Mr. Kurtaj’s cousin, from the front row of the gallery after Justice Conviser finished reading the verdict. “Are you kidding me? Everything.”
The acquittal underscored the difficulty of proving criminal liability in construction accidents, especially when the city and others are accused of mistakes in oversight and regulation that lead to the fatal episodes.

The prosecution against Mr. Lomma, the owner of New York Crane and Equipment Corporation, was centered on the notion that he had put profit motive ahead of safety, which led to the collapse. A former employee of Mr. Lomma's had already pleaded guilty for his role in the case, and testified at trial.

The collapse of the crane at 91st Street and First Avenue occurred on May 30, 2008, just two months after another fatal crane accident on Manhattan’s East Side. In the first accident, which killed seven people, William Rapetti, a rigging contractor, was tried but acquitted of manslaughter charges two years ago.

Mr. Lomma showed no emotion as the verdict was read, but afterward, he smiled and embraced his family in the courtroom. He left without speaking to reporters, and as he strode down the sidewalk, he exchanged pleasantries with his lawyers.

Relatives and lawyers of the two dead workers angrily decried the judge’s verdict outside the courtroom, saying the decision condoned the negligence of construction managers, and would put construction workers’ lives in jeopardy.

“It’s a license to kill,” Maria Leo, Mr. Leo’s mother, said outside the courthouse. She added that construction managers “don’t have to care about the construction workers.”
A man who answered the telephone at Justice Conviser’s office said that the judge would not comment on his verdict.

Mr. Lomma and his companies had faced charges of second-degree manslaughter, assault, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment.

During the two-month-long trial, prosecutors had said that Mr. Lomma relied on an unqualified Chinese company to make repairs to the crane, prosecutors argued, because the company offered a low price and quick turnaround.

Tibor Varganyi, a former employee of Mr. Lomma’s, pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide in October, admitting that he had declined to contract the repair work with two United States companies because Mr. Lomma thought they would have taken too long to complete the job. Testifying at the trial, Mr. Varganyi repeated that assertion, and said that he struggled to measure key components of the crane’s turntable that the Chinese company, RTR, needed to repair it.

The defense had contended that the collapse was not the result of shoddy welding by the Chinese company. Rather, it happened because of a heavy load hoisted by the crane’s operator. That load caused the crane’s line to snap and sent the crane into imbalance.

The family and lawyers for the victims criticized the defense for what they said was blaming the crane operator, Mr. Leo, for the accident.

“My son is not here to defend himself,” Ms. Leo said.

Mr. Leo’s father, also Donald Leo, was himself a crane operator and said he was disappointed with the verdict.

“I don’t know how we can come to this conclusion right now,” he said. “I’m in shock.”
The families still have a civil lawsuit pending against Mr. Lomma, his companies and the city. 

The verdict did not affect the civil case, said Susan Karten, the lawyer for Mr. Kurtaj’s family.

The standard for proof in a civil case, Ms. Karten said, was a “much lower standard, and we have many more defendants.”

In a statement, the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said that “although we are disappointed with the judge’s verdict, each case we have brought in this area has put increased scrutiny on the construction industry as a whole, and has had a cascading effect on safety practices.
“Construction companies must do everything in their power to protect the safety of workers and the thousands of New Yorkers who live near or walk by a construction site every day," he continued. "The tragic deaths of two young men in this case showed the serious and fatal consequences that can result when profit is put ahead of safety.”



A Manhattan judge has acquitted crane owner James Lomma in a bench trial for the deadly collapse



A construction crane owner was acquitted of manslaughter and all other charges Thursday in the May 2008 collapse of a 200-foot-tall rig that snapped apart, killed two workers and fueled concerns about crane safety.

James Lomma sat expressionless and looking frozen as a judge announced his verdict in the only criminal trial stemming from the accident on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Lomma chose not to have a jury in the two-month trial.

The slain workers' relatives shook their heads as Lomma and his two companies were acquitted. They and their lawyers called the verdict an injustice and an alarming signal for the safety of those who work and live around cranes.

Lomma's lawyers had said the case misconstrued an accident as a crime and wrongly blamed him for it. One of them, Paul Shechtman, called the outcome "a bittersweet day because it remains true that two young men were killed in a crane accident."

"But a conscientious judge found rightly that the fault was not Jimmy Lomma's," said Shechtman, who represented Lomma's companies, which were acquitted of the same charges. The attorney who represented Lomma, Andrew M. Lankler, declined to comment.

The case marked Manhattan prosecutors' second try at holding someone criminally responsible for two deadly crane collapses that came within two months of each other in 2008. Together, the fallen cranes killed nine people and spurred new safety measures in New York and in some other cities — scrutiny recently renewed after another Manhattan crane collapse killed a worker this month.

"Although we are disappointed with the judge's verdict, each case we have brought in this area has put increased scrutiny on the construction industry as a whole and has had a cascading effect on safety practices," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement.

The crane was starting work on the 14th floor of what was to be a 32-story apartment building when the top portions of the rig came off, crashed into a building across the street and plummeted to the ground.

The crane operator, Donald C. Leo, 30, died after nearly being decapitated. Ramadan Kurtaj, 27, a sewer company employee who was working on the ground, was pulled from the wreckage and died at a hospital.

"The judge took a knife to our family's heart by letting this man walk away," said Kurtaj's cousin, Xhevahire Kurtaj-Sinanaj.

Prosecutors said the crane fell because Lomma had gotten a bargain-basement welding job to repair a crucial component: the turntable, which lets the upper parts of the rig swivel.

Lomma and mechanic Tibor Varganyi got estimates from known manufacturers. But to save money and repair time on a crane Lomma rented out for $50,000 a month, they instead hired a little-known Chinese company over the Internet, even after the company expressed reservations to Varganyi about its ability to do the job, according to prosecutors and testimony at the trial. Lomma didn't follow city inspectors' requirements for the repair, and the weld ultimately was too weak and poorly done to handle the crane's work, prosecutors said.
Varganyi, who pleaded guilty last year to criminally negligent homicide, testified that he was told Lomma wanted to save time and money. Varganyi is due to be sentenced in May.

The weld was in use for a month before, according to investigators, it failed and sent the crane's upper parts flying.

"The tragic deaths of two young men in this case showed the serious and fatal consequences that can result when profit is put ahead of safety," Vance said Thursday.
Lomma's lawyers said that he had gotten the repair done and tested responsibly — and that regardless, it didn't cause the collapse. The weld was strong enough for its workload, and it broke because the crane fell, not vice versa, according to the defense lawyers and their engineering experts.

By the defense account, the crane toppled because Leo let the heavy "headache ball" — the ball that weights the line used to hoist materials — get reeled into the tip of the crane, a problem known in the industry as "two-blocking."

With the crane at a fairly high angle that day, the impact of the ball sent the crane's long arm over backward and caused the collapse, the defense said.

Prosecutors "missed the actual cause of the accident because they had blinders on. Mr. Lomma (and his companies) acted properly," Lomma lawyer James Kim said in an opening statement.

State Supreme Court Justice Daniel P. Conviser announced his verdict but didn't explain his reasoning, as some judges choose to do.

The dead workers' families, who are suing Lomma and others, blasted the idea that the operator played a part in the collapse.

"It's just another low blow," said Leo's mother, Maria. "They blamed my son . ... How does this happen?"

In the earlier collapse, in March 2008, prosecutors charged a crane rigger with manslaughter and other counts. Another judge acquitted the rigger of all of them in 2010.

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