The operator of a limousine company was spared prison time Thursday in a 2018 crash that killed 20 people when catastrophic brake failure sent a stretch limo full of birthday revelers hurtling down a hill in upstate New York.
Loved ones of the dead excoriated Nauman Hussain, 31, as he sat quietly at the defense table during a hearing that was held in a high school gymnasium to provide for social distancing among the many relatives, friends and media members attending.
Hussain, who operated Prestige Limousine, had originally been charged with 20 counts each of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree manslaughter in what was the deadliest U.S. transportation disaster in a decade.
But under an agreement for Hussain to plead guilty only to the homicide counts and spare families the uncertainties and emotional toll of a trial, he faces five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service. His case had been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
As Judge George Bartlett III prepared to accept the agreement, loved ones of the victims took turns talking of lives cut short, the holes left in their own and their frustration that the operator would avoid time behind bars.
“Every day I try to wrap my head around this impossible situation,” said Sheila McGarvey, whose 30-year-old son Shane McGowan and his wife, Erin, were passengers. “I hate every day without him.”
She wished, she said, that a fraction of any money Hussain spent on lawyers would have been spent to fix the limo’s brakes.
Hussain was accused of putting the victims in a death trap.
“My son, my baby boy, was killed in a limo while trying to be safe,” said Beth Muldoon, the mother of Adam Jackson, 34, who was killed along with his wife, Abigail King Jackson.
The couple, who with the others had rented the limo to avoid drinking and driving, had two small children. Muldoon lamented the holidays and life milestones the parents will miss.
One spectator left the hearing, cursing and shouting, “He killed 20 people,” before apologizing to the judge on her way out.
Hussain sat quietly as parents talked about their smothering grief and anger. Defense attorney Joseph Tacopina said his client accepts responsibility for his actions and cried as the relatives spoke.
Hussain did not answer reporters’ questions after the court proceeding.
Under the deal, Hussain will be formally sentenced after an interim probation of two years. The judge noted that Hussain’s guilty plea could be used to buoy any lawsuits.
The ill-fated limousine was rented to take a group of young friends and siblings to a 30th birthday celebration at Brewery Ommegang near Cooperstown. The vehicle’s brakes failed on a downhill stretch of state Route 30 in Schoharie, 30 miles west of Albany. It blew through a stop sign at a T-intersection and crashed.
The National Transportation Safety Board, during the course of its investigative process, said the owners of the limo repeatedly changed the listed number of seats in the vehicle and took other steps to avoid safety regulations.
Documents released by NTSB reveal chilling details about the moments before the crash. A passenger texted, “the limo sounds like it is going to explode” and “it’s a junker.” Another driver described hearing a noise like a “jet plane” as the limo swerved around her car and sped through the intersection.
Prestige, the third owner of the 2001 Ford Excursion limo, 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 than in its original manufactured state. When it registered the limo, it didn’t disclose to the Department of Motor Vehicles that it had been stretched, as required, and falsified the seating capacity from 18 down to 11, according to the NTSB documents. It further reduced the seating capacity to 8 when it registered the vehicle in 2017, and listed the capacity as 10 in 2018.
Any vehicle with 15 or more seats is defined as a bus under state regulations and is subject to semi-annual inspections.
Documents also show a pattern of failed inspections. The limo was ordered out of service by the New York State Department of Transportation after an inspection on Sept. 4, 2018, that was part of an investigation of Prestige for operating as a limousine service without proper certification. Twice the DOT issued violation notices, and the company paid $500 penalties but kept operating.
In the Sept. 4, 2018, check, the inspector discovered that violations found in previous inspections had not been fixed, so he ordered the vehicle out of service. Among the violations cited was a brake line to the left front axle dangling from the limo that could come in contact with the left front tire.
On Sept. 1, 2018, a third violation notice was issued. Prestige failed to show for a hearing the day before the crash, and an administrative law judge issued a $2,000 penalty.