A state court judge in Manhattan has cleared crane owner James F. Lomma of all charges related to a 2008 tower- crane collapse in New York City that killed a crane operator and a sewer worker. The saga is not over, though, as the victims' attorneys prepare to mount a civil trial against Lomma.
Judge Daniel Conviser declared Lomma not guilty of all six counts, which included second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment. Some people, including Lomma himself, have said the charges were overly aggressive.
"They were trying to hold us responsible for things we had no control over," Lomma told ENR after the April 26 ruling. "I'm relieved it's over, but you know, at the end of the day, two people still died." Others in the crane business also said—with equally tempered emotions—that the verdict was fair.
"We're not celebrating this—there is a tragedy involved," said Frank Bardonaro, vice president and managing director of Terex Corp.'s crane segment. "But if every CEO of every airplane that crashed was put on trial for manslaughter, there wouldn't be any more planes in the air."
Prosecutors argued that, to save time and money, Lomma mechanic Tibor Varganyi ineptly handled the replacement of the crane's turntable with an assembly from an unestablished Chinese manufacturer. The prosecution claimed the gear's failure as the cause of the collapse. Lomma's defense argued the operator had "two-blocked" the crane, placing it in an unstable position that compromised its structural integrity.
Standing outside the court building minutes after the verdict, family members and attorneys for the families of crane operator Donald Leo and sewer worker Ramadan Kurtaj denounced the verdict. "I'm very disappointed because there's no justice here," said Susan Karten, attorney for Kurtaj's family.
"Who collects for this?" asked Donald Leo's mother, Maria. "Not my son, who's been blamed for this and can't defend himself."
The verdict represents the third failed high-profile prosecution related to deadly construction accidents in the past 24 months in the city.
"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," said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. in a statement. The case played out as New York City and federal crane regulations were being rewritten and crane maintenance and operations around the country were under a microscope.
Discovery and depositions in the civil suit now move forward. Plaintiffs' attorneys wouldn't comment on what damages they are seeking but hinted at high stakes.