NEW YORK, Feb 22 (Reuters) - When twin crane collapses
in Manhattan killed nine people within a two-month span in 2008,
they led to a top-to-bottom overhaul of New York City's
inspection procedures and prompted lawsuits against the city and
But it remains to be seen whether attempts to hold
construction executives and companies criminally responsible for
the accidents will succeed.
This week, prosecutors began trying James Lomma, the
construction company owner whose crane collapsed in the second
incident in May 2008, killing two workers.
As in previous construction death cases -- including the
first crane collapse and a 2007 fatal fire in the former
Deutsche Bank building in lower Manhattan -- prosecutors were
faced with the challenge of persuading a judge that the
defendant deserved to shoulder the lion's share of the blame,
even as the defense's expert witnesses promised to point fingers
"In a criminal case, you're picking one actor, unless you're
charging a conspiracy," said Howard Hershenhorn, who represented
the widow of the crane operator who died in the first collapse.
"It's very difficult to find one actor. There are so many
Lomma and his two companies, New York Crane and Equipment
Corp. and J.F. Lomma Inc., face manslaughter and criminally
negligent homicide charges, among others. The top charge,
manslaughter, carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Prosecutors say Lomma made the deliberate decision to fix a
key part of the crane on the cheap by using a Chinese company
without proper vetting.
"Two men were killed, and they were killed because of one
man's greed," Assistant District Attorney Eli Cherkasky told
Acting Supreme Court Justice Daniel Conviser on Tuesday during
But Lomma's attorneys said that the blame lied with workers
at the site who used the crane improperly and accused
investigators of ignoring evidence that the replacement part was
not the chief culprit.
"This case is about a rush to judgment," James Kim, one of
Lomma's attorneys, said in court Tuesday.
The case share similarities with other tough prosecutions
involving deaths at construction sites: competing theories
regarding the causes of the accident, expert testimony on
complicated technical standards, and defendants who say that
others should bear the brunt of the blame.
In 2010, a crane rigger, William Rapetti, and his company
were acquitted of manslaughter and other charges in connection
with the first collapse that killed seven people in March 2008.
Last year, three supervisors at the former Deutsche Bank
building, where two firefighters perished in a blaze that
prosecutors said was exacerbated by a broken standpipe, were
acquitted of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
The company that employed the building's toxin-cleanup
director was acquitted of manslaughter and criminally negligent
homicide, though it was convicted of reckless endangerment.
In the crane rigging case, Rapetti cast the blame on city
negligence and on other workers who failed to secure the crane.
And in the Deutsche Bank case, the defendants argued that city
inspectors bore responsibility for the fatal fire.
While prosecutions in fatal construction accidents can be
daunting, the Manhattan district attorney's office has
successfully prosecuted a number of corruption and fraud cases
involving the construction industry. In 2010, the president of
Testwell Laboratories was sentenced to at least seven years in
prison for faking concrete tests and creating phony invoices.
Finding success in civil cases is often more likely,
Hershenhorn said, both because of the lower burden of proof and
because apportioning blame between a number of different
defendants is easier in a civil context.
His client and several others killed by the collapse settled
with several defendants, including the general contractor and
the owner of the building under construction, for an undisclosed
amount. A number of other lawsuits related to the accident
In his opening statement, Cherkasky dismissed the idea that
the case would be more appropriate in a civil setting.
"This is not a civil case," he said. "The defendants'
actions in this case were criminal in every sense of the word."
The massive crane collapsed on Manhattan's Upper East Side
on May 30, 2008, killing Donald Leo, the crane operator, and
Ramadan Kurtaj, a worker on the street who was hit by falling
The district attorney's office declined to comment on the
The case is People of New York v. James Lomma et al., New
York State Supreme Court, New York County, No. 00852/10.
For the prosecution: Assistant District Attorneys Deborah
Hickey and Eli Cherkasky
For Lomma: Andrew Lankler and James Kim of Lankler Gallagher
For the companies: Paul Shechtman of Zuckerman Spaeder
(Reporting by Joseph Ax)
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