Looming trial leaves questions on fourth anniversary of Schoharie limo crash
Thursday marks the fourth anniversary of a tragedy that continues to reverberate in our community and beyond. The 2018 limo crash in Schoharie that killed 20 people set off years of mourning, courtroom drama, calls for legal reforms, and industry scrutiny. Journalist Larry Rulison of the Times-Union has been on the story since the beginning and spoke with WAMC's Ian Pickus for perspective.
Obviously, this is a grim anniversary as it is each year. Where do things stand in your mind in the fallout from the 2018 crash right now?
Well, we all thought this was all sort of wrapped up last year when Nauman Hussain was the only person charged criminally in the case, and was operating the limo company involved in the crash. He agreed to a plea deal for five years probation and 1,000 hours of community service and that was last September. And so, at that point, we thought it was sort of over, except for the civil cases where the families are suing the limo company and other people. But then, of course, about a month ago, month and a half ago, the new judge in the case in Schoharie County, Judge Peter Lynch decided to throw that plea deal out. So now we're back to square one, where the case is going to trial again next year, early next year. And so, the case has sort of come back to life in a lot of ways and I don't know if that's good or bad for the families. I'm sure it's very traumatic to have to go through the possibility of a trial after they thought they wouldn't have to. But in many ways, I think they're happy that maybe justice will be served.
There's a good chance that such a trial will lead to a lot of new information about the case. What are you still hoping to learn about the 2018 incident that could come to light at trial?
You know, everyone wants to know a lot about how Mavis Discount Tire, that was the repair shop in Saratoga that serviced the stretch, the 34 foot stretch Ford Excursion limousine that was involved in the in the crash and they did break work on the limo. Federal and state investigators blamed the crash on brake failure, and so, whether or not Mavis did the repairs it was supposed to, they did basically what amounted to an illegal inspection of the vehicle. But I think the families are also interested in finding out what culpability the state had and whether or not they really regulated and did all they could to take this limo off the road before the crash because it failed two roadside inspections and it was order up the road. And yet, on October 6, 2018, the limo was back on the road and ended up playing 20 people.
Along those lines, there are a number of civil cases that are ongoing. What is the status of those lawsuits from family members of the victims?
So, when the plea deal that Nauman Hussain agreed to last September happened, the families are very happy because Nauman agreed to testify in those civil cases and honestly, openly, he wasn't going to be afraid of re-incriminating himself. So, those cases were supposed to have gone forward already. Now, they're on hold again, because Nauman has his right to not incriminate himself and testify at this time. Plus, there's some other things holding up those cases. One, the insurer of the limo basically went bankrupt and the state had to take over and wind down its operations and that process is still ongoing. And Governor Kathy Hochul has yet to sign this new law into place called the Grieving Families Act, that would provide a lot more of the victims’ families with possible civil outcomes in terms of the cases where they could, maybe a grandmother who's taking care of children where the parents were deceased, could be eligible for funds. So, until the governor signs that law, and she has until the end of the year, the cases are basically on hold because they'll have to all be redone. So, there are several factors holding up those civil cases. So, in a lot of ways when Nauman Hussain, when Peter Lynch threw out the plea deal with Nauman Hussain, it really is going to delay those civil cases much, much longer. But in general, they're trying to sue Mavis over their culpability in this case, which a lot of that might come out at the criminal trial. So, we'll see they might end up getting what they want in the end, it's just going to take a lot longer.
Lastly, a state report from a task force looking into the crash and limousine safety is late as we speak. What's the update on state oversight of you know, the stretch limousine industry as it stands right now?
Well, the task force did come up with some recommendations to improve limo safety. But, several of the limo task force safety members, including Kevin Cushing, who is the father of Patrick Cushing, one of the victims in the crash, his son died, along with his girlfriend in that crash. They were on going to a birthday party in Cooperstown on the day of the crash. Kevin Cushing and other members the task force, now that's 11 people and most of them are former D.O.T Commissioners, which I didn't totally agree with, that it was so heavily favored on the government side. But, the independent people, like Kevin Cushing, or Ron Barton, who's a retired D.O.T Inspector, they wanted to wait to submit the report to the governor, it was due October 1st, until the State Inspector General came out with a report on possible missteps the state made in regulating Nauman Hussain’s limo service. The D.O.T and DMV who oversaw the taskforce, decided to send a report regardless because it was due October 1st under law to Hochul and the legislature. So, there's been some friction there. But I think the Inspector General will come out with their report very soon. And so, there might be some updates there and maybe who culpable from the state.
This is such a tragic story. It touched so many families. Is there a lasting story or image that sticks with you after having tracked it for the last four years?
Just the tragedy of it, has been so hard to sort of get your arms around. Literally everything that could have gone wrong in this crash did, and everyone was so young. There were so many couples that just been married that year. Couples with young children who now have no parents. And, you know, reading the autopsies, in this case, I mean, they just died a horrific death. So, to me, and it could have all been prevented if the state had just yanked that limo, taking the plates right then and there when they found out that Nauman Hussain had not registered the limo and was basically running an illegal limo operation. It could have been avoided and so many young lives lost, that could have all been avoided. So, to me, that's sort of poignant part of this story to me.