Fatal collapse in New York City killed two workers at a jobsite.

Competing claims of prosecutorial overreach and reckless disregard for human life left no middle ground in the final arguments in New York City equipment executive James Lomma's criminal trial. 

Defense attorneys and prosecutors traded heated allegations in closing statements on April 19 and 20. The case is linked to the fatal 2008 collapse of a tower crane Lomma rented to a high-rise jobsite.

Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Daniel Conviser said he would deliver a verdict on April 26. The defense had requested a bench, or non-jury, trial.

The owner of two city-based crane rental firms that also are defendants in the case, Lomma is accused of multiple counts of negligent homicide and other charges related to the accident. Crane operator Donald C. Leo and sewer worker Ramadan Kurtaj died from their injuries.

'Morality Play'

Opening her remarks on April 20 next to pictures of the victims, Assistant District Attorney Deborah Hickey said that, on the day of the accident, Leo was two weeks shy of his wedding day and that both men died because of Lomma’s greed.

"Sometimes there is no rhyme and there is no reason for the things that people do, but here the reason is clear: It was money," Hickey said.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors argued that Lomma employee Tibor Varganyi ineptly handled the replacement of the crane’s turntable with a part from the Chinese manufacturer RTR to save time and money. The prosecution claimed the failure of the replacement part caused the crane’s collapse and that Lomma tried to hide that fact by trying to corrupt a public official.

But Lomma’s attorney, Paul Shechtman, said that picture of his client does not measure up to reality. “I would suggest it was a nice morality play, but it was not the case,” he said.

The first company that Lomma approached to replace the cracked turntable, Rotec Industries Inc., Hampshire, Ill., cited a two-year wait time for a replacement, which allegedly would have cut into revenue generated by the $50,000-per-month rental crane. Arguing that Rotec was tied up with military contracts at the time, Shechtman defended his client’s decision not to wait. "That’s a long delay for any businessman," he said.

The second firm approached, Ohio-based Avon Bearings Corp., a unit of Kaydon Corp., could speed the delivery, at the earliest, to 28 weeks for $120,000, according to evidence displayed by prosecutors. Shechtman rejected the prosecution’s suggestions that Lomma ultimately tapped Chinese manufacturer RTR to do the job faster and cheaper.

“We know that RTR is in China, but that’s hardly a red flag,” he said, adding that RTR met industry standards for ISO-9001 certification.

Hickey noted that one witness, Alvaro Ortega, a manager of the Miami-based company Atlantic Bearing Services, testified that RTR had poor warehouse conditions and let its bearings cool off on a “freezing outdoor patio.”

She added that, after the collapse, one weld was found to be inadequate. "This bearing with this weld was a ticking bomb," Hickey said. "If the weld hadn’t failed, the crane wouldn’t have collapsed as it did."

Crane Repair Issues

Prosecutors submitted e-mails between Varganyi and RTR representative Joyce Wang as evidence the company was not qualified for the job. Wang wrote, in broken English, "We are afraid the weld technic [sic] we had [sic] is not good … [a]nd honest speaking we don’t have confidence on this welding."

Prosecutors criticized Lomma’s decision to have Varganyi send RTR drawings of what the company wanted, citing the employee's lack of engineering experience, education and tools, but Shechtman said the drawings Varganyi sent were sound.

"None of [the prosecutors or witnesses] said that drawing was wrong,” he contended. The defense lawyer vigorously defended Varganyi, even though he pleaded guilty to identical charges last November as part of a plea bargain to testify against Lomma.

Schechtman tried to reframe Varganyi as a hard-working, self-taught Hungarian immigrant who lost the proud life he built for himself by falsely admitting to charges to avoid jail time and deportation. “It’s a sad but understandable response to the pressures of the criminal justice system,” Schechtman said.