By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Manhattan state judge on Thursday acquitted a construction company owner of manslaughter for a crane collapse that killed two workers in May, 2008 and raised fears about high-level building projects in New York.
James Lomma, who owned the nearly 200-foot-tall crane that snapped in half and crashed onto a building on the Upper East Side, was acquitted of all charges. His companies, New York Crane & Equipment Corp. and J.F. Lomma, were also acquitted.
The accident came two months after another crane operated by Lomma's company in Manhattan collapsed and killed seven people. The incidents fueled fears about safety and prompted the city to adopt new inspection rules. Lomma was not charged in the first incident.
Thursday's verdict was a setback for Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance's efforts to hold construction companies responsible for fatal accidents at their job sites.
Manhattan Supreme Court Acting Justice Daniel Conviser, who heard the case without a jury at Lomma's request, did not elaborate on his not guilty verdict after a trial that lasted two months.
Prosecutors argued that Lomma, 66, skimped on a crucial repair by buying a key part from an obscure Chinese company rather than a more reputable manufacturer, which would have cost more and taken months longer. He then deceived city building inspectors about the fix, prosecutors said.
A month later, they said, the part failed and caused the crane to collapse, killing its operator, Donald Leo, 30, as well as Ramadan Kurtaj, 27, a worker on the ground.
Defense lawyers said the accident was caused by operator error.
Lomma had faced up to 15 years in prison if convicted of manslaughter.
Leo's mother, Maria, criticized the "audacity" of the defense in pointing the finger at her son during the trial. "Justice was not served," she said. "More people will die because of this judge's decision."
The families of Leo and Kurtaj have filed a civil lawsuit against Lomma.
Vance said after Thursday's verdict, that the case "showed the serious and fatal consequences when profit is put ahead of safety."
"Although we are disappointed with the Judge's verdict, 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," he said in a statement.
(Editing by Paul Thomasch; Editing by David Storey)