LESSONS AND LAW FROM A CRANE COLLAPSE, by Anne E. Armstrong Anne Armstrong, corporate veil, crane collapse, excessive, expert preclusion, insurance, jury award, punitive damages
The First Department has reduced the awards to plaintiffs in the widely covered crane collapse case of May 30, 2008. The First Department also upheld the preclusion of a defense expert whose testimony was deemed to be speculative and conclusory. Additionally, the First Department upheld the piercing of the corporate veil to hold defendant James Lomma, personally, and many of his other companies liable to plaintiffs. Below is a recap of the First Department’s lengthy decision.
The Crane Collapse
On May 30, 2008, a crane collapsed on East 91st Street in Manhattan, resulting in the deaths of crane operator Donald Leo and construction worker Ramdan Kurtaj. The subject crane was leased from defendant NY Crane, a company owned by individual defendant James Lomma. In 2007, before being used on the 91st Street project, it was determined that the crane’s bearing ring, upon which both the operator’s cab and counterweight arm rested, had developed a crack and required replacement. Lomma admitted knowing that any failure of the bearing ring would have catastrophic results. Upon being informed that a replacement from the original manufacturer would cost $34,000.00 dollars, and would take one (1) year to manufacture, Lomma directed an employee to find an alternative. This employee, who had no technical expertise, performed a Google search and located a China-based company, RTR, who claimed it could make the bearing ring for only $20,000.00 dollars and on the needed timeline. Defendant corporation JF Lomma paid for the bearing ring.
Lomma pressed forward with RTR to manufacture the bearing ring, despite RTR’s own stated reservations about its ability to weld the bearing. Lomma paid RTR an additional $1,710.00 dollars, and provided them general information from the manufacturer regarding the welds. RTR then agreed to weld the bearing. During the manufacturing process for this bearing, Lomma contacted engineers to get their input on the bearing and potential certification of same, however none of the engineers would sign off on the bearing for DOB certification. As a result, Lomma, who is not an engineer, certified the bearing himself. Upon receipt of the replacement bearing, Lomma had the steel tested to ensure compliance with industry requirements but he did not have the weld tested. The bearing was then installed by Brady Marine Repair Co., who did not test the welds because Lomma did not request they do so. Lomma then contacted a former NY Crane employee, now employed with DOB, to inspect the crane to be placed back in service. This DOB employee only visually inspected the crane, a breach of DOB protocol. On April 19 and 20, 2008 the crane was erected, and at that time passed DOB testing. In late April, Brady Marine informed Lomma that another RTR-manufactured turntable had a bad weld that was pitted and not fused properly. Lomma did not take any action to determine if the just installed bearing ring had similar flaws, and instead negotiated a discount of $6,000 for the other ring.
For the next five weeks, the crane performed without issue. However at 8:00 a.m. on May 30, 2008, as Donald Leo was operating the crane to lift a basked of electricians' tools, the “headache ball”, a ballast used to keep the lifting line taught, was 30 to 40 feet off the ground, and stationary when the crane began to tip backwards. Donald Leo was trapped, alone, in the operator cab. Witnesses testified to seeing him pray and then brace himself against the coming impact. He suffered catastrophic injuries, and died less than 20 minutes after the accident. Ramadan Kurtaj screamed at his coworkers to run, and his injuries were indicative of attempts to brace himself against the impact. Kurtaj succumbed to his injuries approximately four (4) hours after the accident.
The Trial and Jury Award
Plaintiffs presented testimony from numerous experts all of whom pointed to the inadequacy of the RTR welds in bringing about the crane collapse. Defendants were only able to present one expert at trial, Edward Cox, as another expert, James Wiethorn, was precluded. Even Cox, defendants' own expert, testified that he would not have certified the RTR bearing.
The jury found defendants Lomma, NY Crane and JF Lomma negligent. For Plaintiff Leo the jury awarded $7.5 million for pre-impact terror, $8 million for pain and suffering, and $24 million in punitive damages. For Plaintiff Kurtaj the jury awarded $7.5 million for pre-impact terror, $24 million for pain and suffering, and $24 million for punitive damages. Lomma, NY Crane and JF Lomma appealed the awards as well as the preclusion of their expert witness, Wiethorn, and the piercing of the corporate veil subjecting Lomma to personal liability. Though the appellate court did reduce the awards, it upheld Wiethorn’s preclusion and the piercing of the corporate veil.
Where Entities Are Treated As One, The Corporate Veil Will Be Pierced
Mr. Lomma was found to have exercised complete dominion over multiple businesses, all of which were determined to have operated, essentially, as one entity and were treated as such by Lomma himself. The First Department found that each of the various companies would rent equipment from the other at will, profits were readily shifted between companies, and they all shared the same offices, email and staff. Most damning for Lomma was his personal involvement in the events that brought about the crane collapse. The court found that Lomma was personally involved in the events that launched a dangerous instrumentality, failed to respect the corporate form of his businesses and was therefore able to be held personally liable to plaintiffs. It is important to note that Lomma himself was acquitted of criminally negligent homicide, and all charges, resulting from this accident.
Expert Testimony Precluded Where Plainly Contradicted by Facts in Evidence
The First Department also upheld the trial court’s preclusion of defense expert Wiethorn, holding that his opinion was conclusory and plainly contradicted by the record. Essentially, Wiethorn placed the blame for the accident on Leo, opining that Leo “high boomed” and “two-blocked” the crane. The First Department found that none of the eyewitness accounts of the accident would support Wiethorn’s theory, and that he was contradicted by the physical evidence. The First Department upheld the trial court’s decision to preclude the testimony as it would have lacked probative value in that it was conclusory, speculative and contradicted by the evidence.
Damages Reduced, but Remain Significant
In reducing the awards to plaintiffs the First Department sought guidance from similar cases. Pre-impact terror is a subcategory of conscious pain and suffering designed to compensate for the time between the first apprehension of danger and the resulting injuries. The First Department noted that each plaintiff experienced inconceivable pre-impact terror, and tried to shield themselves from the debris. The pre-impact terror awards to Leo and Kurtaj of $7.5 million each were found to be excessive regardless, and reduced to $2.5 million and $2 million, respectively.
The awards to Leo and Kurtaj for conscious pain and suffering, $8 million and $24 million, respectively, were also reduced by the First Department. An award of conscious pain and suffering requires proof of some level of cognitive awareness following the injury. The burden of proof falls to plaintiff to prove consciousness following an accident. The record established that Leo was conscious for less than 20 minutes following the accident, and that Kurtaj would remain alive for some four (4) hours. The injuries suffered by each man, as detailed in the record, were catastrophic. With regard to Leo, the First Department noted that other plaintiffs, also surviving for a brief period of time following an accident, were awarded damages of less than $1 million for conscious pain and suffering. However, the court also noted that the injures suffered by Leo were extreme, and then reduced the award to $5.5 million. As to Kurtaj, the court again looked to similar plaintiffs and found awards ranging from $1.2 million to $3 million. The court again noted, however, that Kurtaj’s injuries were almost singular in their devastation, and then reduced his award to $7.5 million.
Each plaintiff was awarded $24 million in punitive damages, which was then reduced to $8 million for Leo and $9.5 million for Kurtaj. In upholding an award of punitive damages in this case, the court found that Lomma placed profit over the safety of the public and construction workers, and made numerous calculated decisions toward that end. The court noted that Lomma failed to test the welds, have them properly certified and failed to act when warned about the welds on another crane. The court noted that the accident occurred early in the day, and that had it occurred later, the result could have been even more devastating. However, the court also noted that punitive damages must comport with constitutional limitations, specifically the Due Process Clause which prohibits grossly excessive punishments. The First Department found that a reduction in the awards was necessary, but that a sizeable award was required to punish the defendants and to deter any future misconduct. It should be noted that, in addition to Lomma himself, all of his companies were also acquitted of criminal charges in this matter.
Arbitrating Indemnity Issues During the Pendency of a Supreme Court Action, by Arthur Xanthos Permalink
Our last article warned of a pitfall with the traditional arbitration clause - an arbitrator may end up with a power (e.g., the power to award punitive damages) that was never intended by the parties. Here we highlight another arbitration issue that has arisen several times in our practice. ADR, alternative dispute resolution, arbitration, Arthur Xanthos, construction law, general contractors, indemnification, indemnity, insurance, labor law, lawsuit, personal injury, premises liability, real estate
Assume an Owner (O) hires a General Contractor (GC) to do work on a construction site, and the standard AIA form contract is executed containing a mandatory arbitration clause providing that "all disputes between the parties arising out of this agreement shall be resolved by binding arbitration under then applicable commercial arbitration rules". Plaintiff-worker (P) trips and falls while working on the site and sues both O and GC, alleging negligence, as well as violations of the New York State Labor Law (the "Lawsuit"). O and GC each answer the Lawsuit and assert cross-claims against each other for contribution, defense, and indemnification.
All of the above is standard fare and occurs almost reflexively. But then something unusual happens: O's counsel files an arbitration demand, demanding that GC arbitrate the issue of whether GC owes O defense and indemnification in the Lawsuit (the "Arbitration"). Inter-defendant arbitration of an indemnity obligation in the context of a pending personal injury lawsuit is an unusual tactic, and raises a host of procedural problems. For example, what happens to the rest of the case as the arbitration proceeds? What if the arbitration requires the resolution of other issues that have not yet been decided by the court? What if the arbitration takes the case beyond “standards and goals”? New York courts have come up with methods of dealing with the procedural problems. See, e.g., Weiss v Nath, 97 A.D.3d 661, 664 (2d Dep't 2012); County Glass & Metal Installers, Inc. v. Pavarini McGovern, LLC, 65 A.D.3d 940, 940-941 (1st Dep't 2009); and 624 Art Holdings, LLC v. Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., 2012 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6440, 26-27 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. June 7, 2012). But even assuming counsel is willing to navigate the attendant procedural problems, in our opinion inter-defendant Arbitration of part of a Supreme Court action can only be justified in one of two circumstances:
1. Where a quicker resolution of the indemnity issue would occur in the Arbitration as opposed to the Lawsuit, and that speed is worth the arbitration fees; and/or
2. Where a more favorable resolution of the indemnity issue would occur in the Arbitration as opposed to the Lawsuit.
It is likely that New York counsel always will conclude that a quicker resolution would occur in the Arbitration. Counsel could also conclude that a more favorable resolution would occur in the Arbitration under the following scenarios:
1. If the rules applicable to the Arbitration (but not applicable to the Lawsuit) generate a better result -- of course then Arbitration would be advisable. But to make this decision counsel must retrieve the applicable Arbitration rules, review them for application to the indemnity issue, and compare the result with that obtained via the Lawsuit.
2. If the particular arbitrator used comes from a construction background and therefore knows or “feels” that such indemnity obligations should regularly be enforced -- here too Arbitration would be advisable.
So the conclusions are these: If the Arbitration would yield a more favorable result, choose inter-defendant arbitration regardless of the fees for arbitration. If the arbitration would yield a quicker result, and a result no worse than that yielded in Supreme Court, choose to arbitrate if you are willing to pay the cost to arbitrate in exchange for a speedier decision. In all other cases, bide your time and wait for the assigned Justice to make the decision on summary judgment.
Pre-Loss Risk Management Meetings with Insureds, by Arthur Xanthos Permalink
Liability insurance carriers have several methods of managing the risk posed by their insureds' operations. One little used but very effective technique is the pre-loss risk management meeting between the insured and the carrier, or between the insured and an attorney hired by the carrier. Arthur Xanthos, carriers, construction law, general contractors, insurance, labor law, premises liability, risk management, risk management meetings
In the case of a general contractor ("GC")insured, the procedure runs generally as follows: a GC that intends to develop land purchases a general liability insurance policy from an insurance carrier. As part of the insurance binder, the GC is obligated to meet with an attorney to review the subcontract agreements used by the GC, and to review the safety of its operations. (The carrier if it wishes can charge the GC a sum in addition to the premium to cover the cost of the meeting.) The meeting is then held between the attorney and the GC, during which subcontracts and insurance certificates are reviewed, and safety measures on the construction site are looked at (particularly those that might trigger New York State Labor Law liability). The attorney then makes suggestions to improve the GC's paperwork and its safety measures.
Rather than rewriting the insured's subcontracts entirely (an expensive, and likely vain pursuit), the attorney will want to leverage the time spent by focusing on three areas during the meeting with the insured: (1) the quality of the indemnity language in the insured's subcontracts; (2) the accuracy and proper wording of any insurance certificates from the subcontractors; and (3) the responsibility for safety on the construction site. It is these three areas that will pay the most dividends in the event of a loss.
In our experience conducting risk management meetings, not more than half of the contractor insureds we meet have both a valid indemnification provision in their favor, and a properly drafted insurance certificate from their subcontractors. Following a well run risk management meeting, however, the insured's subcontracts will have a valid and unambiguous indemnification clause running in favor of the insured, the insured's subcontractors will have made the insured an additional insured on the subcontractor's liability insurance policy, the insured will have received a tutorial on the strict safety rules applicable to owners and contractors on a construction site, and the carrier's adjustment of a future claim will be a matter of passing the defense and indemnity of the insured to the subcontractor and its insurance carrier.
So a proper risk management meeting will benefit both carrier and insured. For these reasons, all general liability insurance carriers should consider utilizing risk management meetings. Four points, however, should be kept in mind: (1) the insured is not always receptive to such meetings, even if the insurance binder requires it. Consequently, you will find that the meeting often takes place long after the insured starts work on the site; (2) you are counting on the insured taking the advice of the attorney. There is little recourse, however, if the insured does not do so (other than perhaps a non-renewal of the policy); (3) it is not a requirement that an attorney conduct these meetings -- an experienced adjuster can be just as effective; and (4) the average time to prepare for and conduct the meeting is six hours. The amount charged to the insured, if any, should reflect that anticipated cost.