In October, federal investigators released a report saying that state regulators repeatedly failed to oversee a poorly maintained limousine with corroded brakes that ended up careening down a hill without stopping at an intersection, and crashed in a ravine outside of a country store in Schoharie, killing 20 people – including the driver, 17 passengers, and two unlucky bystanders. Oct. 6 was the 2nd anniversary of the tragedy.
Nauman Hussain, the operator of Prestige Limousine, faces 20 charges each of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. He pleaded not guilty and was scheduled to stand trial in May, but the trial was delayed due to the pandemic. His lawyers have been meeting with prosecutors to discuss a possible plea deal. There is still no firm trial date for Nauman Hussain would be.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report indicated that Hussain repeatedly changed the listed number of seats in his 2001 Ford Excursion limo and took other steps to avoid safety regulations. State regulators also repeatedly fell short of their duties to ensure the vehicle was safe.
The NTSB found that the crash was likely caused by Prestige Limousine’s “egregious disregard for safety” that resulted in brake failure on a long downhill stretch of road and that ineffective state oversight contributed. Staff members told the board that the brake system was corroded and that a brake line was crimped, which would have restricted the fluid flowing to the right rear brake. Parts of the line were coated in brake fluid, indicating a leak.
NTSB Chairperson Robert Sumwalt also criticized the local prosecutor and state police for “a lack of cooperation” with the agency’s crash investigation. The board said the New York Department of Transportation knew of Prestige’s out-of-service violations and lack of operating authority – adding that the state Department of Motor Vehicles failed to properly register the limousine, allowing Prestige to circumvent safety regulations and inspection requirements. Sumwalt said the lack of cooperation from law enforcement delayed the completion, causing the investigation to take nearly two full years.
“Unfortunately, the parallel criminal investigation conducted by the Schoharie County District Attorney’s Office and the New York State Police significantly impeded and curtailed our typical investigative efforts,” Sumwalt said. “Particularly early in our investigation, some NTSB investigators were outright blocked from even viewing, let alone examining, critical evidence.”
The state agencies said they “ordered that vehicle off the road multiple times.”
The NTSB documents indicate Prestige took pains to avoid more stringent inspection rules intended to ensure a modified vehicle has the braking capacity and other requirements for carrying a heavier load. When the company registered the limo, it didn’t disclose to the DMV that it had been stretched, as required, and falsified the seating capacity from 18 down to 11. The company further reduced the seating capacity to 8 when it registered the vehicle in 2017, and listed the capacity as 10 in 2018, documents show. Any vehicle with 15 or more seats is defined as a bus under state regulations and is subject to semi-annual inspections.
As part of the report, the NTSB issued limousine safety recommendations to federal and state officials and the National Limousine Association. The families of the victims also have advocated for limo safety and changes. In February, Governor Cuomo signed limousine safety reforms into law.