The Associated Press April 20, 2012, 09:58AM ET

Defense lawyer says NY crane owner hid nothing

Prosecutors wrongly claimed a construction crane owner ignored city requirements and deceived inspectors to get a cheap repair, and then authorities erred by blaming the repair for a collapse that killed two workers, defense lawyers said Thursday.

Owner James Lomma's lawyers say an operator's mistake caused the May 2008 accident on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Prosecutors, instead, say a crucial component got a flawed fix because Lomma wanted to save money, and the repaired part failed and brought down the top section of the nearly 200-foot-tall rig.

Lomma, they have said, violated building codes and industry standards by getting the piece replaced by a little-known company, and then veiled the new component and its origins from officials.

"That's a weighty accusation, and that is monstrously untrue," defense lawyer Paul Shechtman said in a closing argument in Lomma's manslaughter trial. ". Nothing was hidden from anyone."

Prosecutors were due to give their summation Friday in the only criminal trial stemming from that May 2008 collapse on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Conviser will decide the case without a jury, at Lomma's request.

Prosecutors trace the collapse to Lomma's decision to get a replacement turntable -- the part that lets the crane's arm swivel -- from a Chinese company his mechanic found online, rather than from more established American manufacturers who quoted higher prices and longer timeframes.

A month after the new turntable was put into service, the weld failed and caused the accident, prosecutors say. The 200-foot-tall crane's long arm snapped off, tore into a nearby building and tumbled to the ground. Crane operator Donald C. Leo, 30, and sewer company worker Ramadan Kurtaj, 27, were killed.

"They were killed because one man valued his own profit over the safety of others," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eli Cherkasky said in his opening statement in February.

But Lomma's lawyers said he acted reasonably and responsibly in getting the repair done and inspected. Prosecutors extrapolated from and misinterpreted building codes and industry standards in claiming Lomma violated them, Shechtman said. And Lomma's company informed city officials about the repair, calling the city's then-chief crane inspector to check out the new part, among other steps, Shechtman said.

Although a representative for the supplier had at one point expressed doubt to Lomma's mechanic that the firm could handle the welding work, she later wrote that "we can do this" -- and the mechanic never told Lomma about the exchange, Shechtman said.

At any rate, according to Lomma's lawyers and experts who testified for them, the weld wasn't the reason for the collapse. They say Leo reeled the heavy hook assembly into the extended tip of the crane, and the impact destabilized it -- an effect known in crane circles as "two-blocking." Workers had disabled a safety system meant to prevent it, the defense says.

"The cause of the collapse is the two-blocking," another of Lomma's lawyers, Andrew Lankler, said in his summation.

Lawyers for the slain workers' families have called that claim offensive bunk.

Lomma, 66, and his companies, New York Crane & Equipment Corp. and J. F. Lomma Inc., are on trial. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison, and the company could be fined.

The collapse came two months after another crane fell elsewhere in Manhattan and killed seven people. The two collapses stoked concerns about crane safety -- worries evoked again when another crane collapsed in Manhattan earlier this month, killing a worker.

The city enacted a roster of new crane rules after the 2008 accidents, and officials on Thursday announced new licensing requirements for all crane operators. Starting next month, all new crane license applicants will have to have a certification from a nationally accredited organization, a requirement that now applies only to those who run the smallest class of cranes. The national groups' exams are broader and updated more often than the tests the city currently uses, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office.

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