Tudor Van Hampton
Crane supplier James Lomma.

Another high-profile criminal trial linked to fatalities on a New York City construction site began Feb. 21. Prosecutors and defense attorneys offered vastly different views in a Manhattan courtroom about whether equipment rental executive James L. Lomma should be held liable for the damage caused by the collapse of one of his cranes, which killed two workers in 2008.

Prosecutors presented opening arguments with a computer model that they said depicted the fatal accident at a Manhattan high-rise site. Defense attorneys claimed that photographic evidence from the scene contradicted the computer model and exonerated their client, who is CEO of New York Crane and Equipment Corp. The firm and J.F. Lomma Inc., another owned by Lomma, are also defendants.

Crane operator Donald C. Leo, 30, one of the victims, was two weeks shy of his wedding day when the cab where he sat fell 140 feet, prosecutor Eli Cherkasky told a packed courtroom. He was a member of Local 14 of the operating engineers' union. Leo’s father, who is also a crane operator, will testify about how he held his son’s lifeless body for 10 minutes at the site of the accident, Cherkasky said.

The second victim, Serbian immigrant Ramadan Kurtaj, was a sewer worker at the site. His father, Uka Kurtaj, later told reporters outside the courtroom, “There is nothing that I can do, but I only hope the law puts him where he belongs.”

Prosecutors blame Lomma primarily for their deaths. “They were killed because of one man’s greed,” Cherkasky said, pointing an accusatory finger toward the defense table. He said the Lomma-owned firms "essentially functioned as one."

In 2007, Kenneth George Clark, a signalman for a concrete company, reported to the city Buildings Dept. Cranes and Derricks division that he found a glaring defect on a Kodiak model tower crane, which his company rented from Lomma. Testifying as the prosecution’s first witness, he said, “You could see sunlight through the crack in the turntable.” According to Cherkasky, division Executive Director Bethany Klein considered the crack a “catastrophe in the making,” and immediately issued a stop-work order until it was corrected.

Welding in the Air Rejected

Klein allegedly shot down Lomma’s initial proposal to weld the crack while the crane was still in the air, according to the prosecutor. Lomma then allegedly tried to get the part repaired through a Chicago-based company, Avon Bearings. That firm replied that the part had to be replaced rather than mended.

During the construction boom of 2007, Lomma sought manufacturers that would send him a replacement part fastest and cheapest, rather than ones with the best reputation, Cherkasky said.

The first company that Lomma approached, Rotec, cited a two-year wait time for a replacement, which allegedly would have cut into Lomma’s profits from $50,000-per-month crane rentals, Cherkasky said. The second, Avon, could speed the delivery to 28 weeks at the earliest, for $120,000, according to evidence displayed by prosecutors.