The Real Deal New York

Azure crane owner acquitted in fatal collapse

April 26, 2012 12:01PM
By C.J. Hughes

From left: Crane owner James Lomma and the Azure at 333 East 91st Street

[Updated at 1:42 p.m. with comments and details from the courtroom] In a move that caught many by surprise, the owner of a crane that collapsed at an Upper East Side condominium in 2008 killing two people was acquitted of all the charges against him today, including manslaughter.

James Lomma was found not guilty of six counts by Judge Daniel Coviser in a packed courtroom in Lower Manhattan, bringing an end to a high-profile and emotionally fraught two-month criminal trial.

Afterward, Lomma hugged his supporters while some of the victims’ family members shook their heads, stunned. The case was heard by a judge and not a jury at Lomma’s request. He did not speak as he left the courtroom.

Prosecutors accused Lomma of being a cold-hearted businessman who greedily commissioned a spotty, cost-saving repair of a crucial component of the crane in China and hid it from inspectors. The collapse ultimately cost two lives at the 333 East 91st Street  construction site, where the Azure condo now stands.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said he was disappointed with the verdict, but that “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.”

But defense attorneys argued that it wasn’t the fault of the crane but how it was used, and blamed Donald Leo, the crane operator and a victim, for putting too much weight at the crane’s tip, causing it to topple. It also killed Ramadan Kurtaj, who was working on the ground.

As a result of the accident, which was the second fatal one that year, the city began an aggressive crackdown on job-site safety and instituted sweeping changes at the Department of Buildings.

But today’s verdict sends a terrible message to other crane operators across the city, who now might be encouraged to cut corners without regard to safety, according to lawyers for the victims’ families, who addressed reporters outside the court.

“How many people have to die?” asked Susan Karten, an attorney for the Kurtaj family. “No one in the city should feel any safer because of this judge’s verdict.”

“How much proof do you need?” asked Xhevahire Sinanaj, 34, who is Kurtaj’s cousin. “It’s beyond disappointing.”

Bernadette Panzella, a lawyer for the Leo family, said paperwork for a civil lawsuit would be filed and hoped the outcome would be similar to what happened to O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of murder in criminal court but later convicted in a civil trial.

Still, she expressed outrage. “This city at the highest level has taken the position that it’s business as usual,” Panzella said. “What is says is that nobody’s safe in this city.”

— With additional reporting provided by Katherine Clarke.

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