Crane Owner, Companies Ordered to Pay $47 Million to Families of 2 Killed in Manhattan Crane Collapse

A construction crane owner who was acquitted of manslaughter in a Manhattan collapse that killed two workers has been ordered to pay $47.8 million in damages in a civil wrongful death trial, along with his companies.

James Lomma, the crane owner, his company and others involved in the Upper East Side high-rise construction site accident in May 2008 have been ordered to pay $32 million to the family of Ramadan Kurtaj, the 27-year-old construction worker working directly below the crane during the collapse, and $15.8 million to Donald Leo, the 39-year-old crane operator.

The accident at 91st Street and First Avenue helped spur new safety measures.

The civil trial marked the longest sitting jury in the history of New York City, according to the families' attorneys. The jury will reconvene next week to hear testimony on the financial wealth of Lomma and his companies. 

"Cranes are not supposed to fall from the sky," said Bernadette Panzella, who represents crane operator Donald C. Leo's family, during opening statements in May 2014. "James F. Lomma didn't do what he was supposed to do."

Lomma's lawyers suggested that Leo's handling of the crane contributed to the collapse, echoing his defense at his criminal trial.

The families' lawyers said that Lomma allowed a cheap, shoddy repair to a critical crane part and that the fix failed and sparked the collapse. Top portions of the 200-foot-tall rig snapped off and plummeted to the ground, killing Leo, 30, and crushing to death sewer company worker Ramadan Kurtaj, 27.

Prosecutors made — and jurors rejected — a similar argument at Lomma's 2012 criminal trial. There, Lomma's lawyers said he got the repair done and inspected responsibly. They also argued that Leo made mistakes that destabilized the crane, a theory his family called offensive.

The legal bar for proving a criminal case is higher than for holding someone liable in civil court. Civil courts also can apportion blame among different parties, including the plaintiff.

Before Lomma was acquitted, mechanic Tibor Varganyi, who had arranged the repair, pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide. Varganyi was sentenced to a year of community service.

Lomma's attorney did not immediately respond to a call and email from The Associated Press on Thursday seeking comment.

Lomma was acquitted of manslaughter and other criminal charges in 2012.

Mechanic Tibor Varganyi, who had arranged the crane repair, pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide. Varganyi was sentenced to a year of community service.

The trial got underway in October. It had initially started in May 2014, but was postponed after Lomma was seriously hurt in a car crash, suffering multiple fractures.

The crane collapsed two months after another crane fell apart in midtown and killed seven people. Together, the accidents stirred concern about crane safety and led to a roster of new regulations.

The collapse happened two months after another crane toppled elsewhere in Manhattan and killed seven people. The accidents prompted scrutiny of crane safety and a host of new crane rules.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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