A money-hungry construction crane owner's decision to skimp on a vital repair job led to a collapse that killed two workers, a prosecutor said Tuesday as the owner went on trial in a manslaughter case he says is casting the 2008 accident as a crime.
"They were killed because of one man's greed," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eli Cherkasky said in his opening statement in James Lomma's trial. "They were killed because one man valued his own profit over the safety of others."
Defense lawyers were expected to give their openings later Tuesday in the only criminal trial stemming from the May 2008 crane collapse on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
Prosecutors say Lomma pinched pennies on a crucial repair job that failed and caused the collapse, but the defense says Lomma acted responsibly in getting the repair done. It says expert witnesses have concluded the crane fell apart because it was pulled too high - not because the repaired part failed.
"What our experts say is that the weld was not the cause of this collapse," defense lawyer Paul Shechtman told a judge during legal arguments before the openings Tuesday. Lomma and his companies, New York Crane & Equipment Corp. and J. F. Lomma Inc., have chosen to have a judge decide the verdict, instead of a jury.
The accident happened two months after another Manhattan crane collapse killed seven people, and the incidents together prompted scrutiny of crane safety here and in other American cities.
For the Manhattan DA's office, Lomma's trial is a second attempt to hold someone criminally responsible for the two crane collapses, which stoked anxieties about construction oversight in a city that had been in a building boom. A crane rigger was acquitted of manslaughter and all other charges in the earlier collapse.
For Lomma, the trial represents a chance to try to clear himself with a two-part defense outlined in court documents - that he acted responsibly in getting the repair done and inspected, and that the crane fell apart because it was pulled up too high, not because the repaired part failed.
"New York Crane is looking forward to a trial at which it will be shown that what occurred was a tragic accident, and not a crime," Shechtman, who represents the companies, said Friday.
The 200-foot-tall 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 snapped off, crashed into a building across the street and plummeted to the ground. Donald C. Leo, 30, a second-generation crane operator who was two weeks from marrying his fiancDee, was in the crane's cab and was almost decapitated when it fell, Cherkasky said.
On the ground, a sewer company worker, Ramadan Kurtaj, 27, was crushed in the rubble and died hours after being pulled out. A third construction worker, Simeon Alexis, was seriously injured.
The victims' relatives lined rows in a crowded courtroom Tuesday to see Lomma's trial start.
"I hope that the law takes him into the right hands, where he belongs," Kurtaj's father, Uke Kurtaj of Peja, Kosovo, said outside court through an Albanian-language translator. "If you knew ahead of time that the crane could have collapsed, that was as if you went in there and killed (my son) yourself."
Prosecutors say the culprit in the collapse was a bad weld in the crane's turntable, a critical component that lets the upper parts of the rig swivel.
Lomma and mechanic Tibor Varganyi got estimates from known manufacturers but instead arranged for a cheap welding job to replace a critical component in the crane, prosecutors say. The two hired an obscure Chinese company over the Internet to do the work and failed to take steps to ensure the repair was sound - even after a company representative warned in an email that "we don't have confidence on this welding," prosecutors said. The representative later said the company "could do this."
After a month of use, the weld failed, investigators found.
Varganyi, 65, has pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide. He's set for sentencing in April and could be spared jail time if he testifies, as expected, against Lomma, 66.
Lomma and his companies' "actions were criminal in every sense of the word," Cherkasky said.
But Lomma's lawyers have said New York Crane arranged to have the weld tested. City building officials inspected the repaired part and approved putting the crane in service, and Lomma had no reason to cut corners to save money because insurance was covering the cost of the replacement part, they said.
But the repair wasn't the key factor in the collapse, the defense says in court documents. An engineering expert is prepared to testify that "the failure of the (Chinese company's) weld was one of several results caused by the improper operation of the crane," Shechtman and Lomma lawyer Andrew M. Lankler wrote in an Oct. 19 court filing.
The weld was adequate to handle the expected load, the lawyers wrote in a related document. But their engineering expert concluded the crane's arm was lifted at too high an angle just before the collapse, despite safety devices supposed to limit how high it can go, the lawyers said in the Oct. 19 filing.
"It appears that the aids and devices were disengaged, overridden or ignored," they wrote.
Their expert determined "operator error" caused a problem known as "two-blocking" - essentially, the ball-and-hook assembly being pulled tightly into the top of the crane and destabilizing it, the lawyers wrote.
The dead workers' families, who are suing Lomma and others, have bristled at the suggestion that their loved ones played a role in the collapse. Bernadette Panzella, a lawyer for Leo's family, has called the notion that workers shut off safety systems a "preposterous conspiracy theory."
Lomma "cannot impugn the integrity of the entire construction work force and expect that the public and the judiciary will accept his lies," she said in a statement in December.
If convicted, Lomma could face up to 15 years in prison.