SCHOHARIE — The owners of Prestige Limousine are denying responsibility for the limousine crash in Schoharie last October that claimed 20 lives.
In the first defense filing in a civil lawsuit against the company and father-son owner-operators Shahed and Nauman Hussain, the company denies a number of allegations that the stretch limousine had failed inspections and been kept on the road anyway, and that the defendants were guilty of “gross negligence.”
The motion was in response to the wrongful death case brought by Thomas and Donna Rivenburg on behalf of their daughter, Amanda Rivenburg, 29, of Colonie, who was one of 17 passengers killed in the Oct. 6 crash.
The Rivenburg lawsuit is the first of what is expected to be a number of lawsuits connected to the tragedy; the passengers were young adults traveling from Amsterdam to a planned birthday party at a Cooperstown brewery.
The crash occurred on Oct. 6 — the Saturday of Columbus Day weekend — at the intersection of state routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie. A 2001 Ford Excursion limousine opened by Prestige came down the Route 30 hill and went through a stop sign at what witnesses said was a high rate of speed. It crossed Route 30A, went through the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store, and came to rest in a short ravine. In addition to all passengers, the driver and two pedestrians in the Apple Barrel parking lot were killed.
The defense motion was filed Feb. 27 by the Albany office of Wilson, Elser, the law firm representing Prestige and its owners.The suit, which was filed in November, will be heard by state Supreme Court Justice Richard M. Platkin in Albany.
In addition to denying the allegations in the lawsuit, the defense papers offer civil “affirmative defenses.” They include that the crash was not the result of negligence, but was an “act of God”; that those who died should have been aware of the risks and so they bear responsibility; that the crash was due to “the culpable conduct of some third person or persons”; that there was a yet-uncovered “intervening or superseding cause”; and that those who died were injured because they were not properly wearing seat belts.
New York state law does not require rear vehicle passengers to wear seat belts. Whether any of the passengers in the limousine were actually wearing seat belts is unclear, and is part of the ongoing investigations being conducted by state police and the National Transportation Safety Board.
An attorney for the Rivenburg family, Mikhail Shah of Girvin & Ferlazzo in Albany, called the defense’s response denying responsibility “very, very boilerplate. They didn’t specifically tune their answer to be more specific to the case at hand; it’s like a kitchen-sink approach.”
Shah said his next step in the case is to seek information possessed by the defendants and other parties.
Girvin & Ferlazzo filed the first lawsuit because it wanted to move quickly, Shah said. “A loss of life, to us it’s a very, very serious issue,” he said.
Nauman Hussain, of Cohoes, who police said is the operator of the company, was arrested soon after the crash on a single count of criminally negligent homicide. That case remains pending with the Schoharie County District Attorney’s Office. Hussain is free on bail.
His father, Shahed Hussain, remains in the Middle East. The Pakistan native was in that country for medical treatment at the time of the crash and has not returned. Rivenburg’s attorneys began publishing a full-page legal notice in the Albany Times-Union this week to legally notify the elder Hussain of the lawsuit, since they have been unable to serve him with court papers. Once the notice has been published for four consecutive weeks, it will count as service on Shahed Hussain, Shah said.
In the wake of the crash there have been calls for new stretch limousine safety rules. In his 2020 executive budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo initially called for a ban on stretch limousines. Last week, however, be backed away from a total ban, to which other limousine companies have objected.
Cuomo said he wants to target unsafe limousines — those created through an after-market process in which the vehicle is cut in half and a new section inserted. The Prestige Ford Excursion had such modifications, with its wheelbase being stretched from 11.4 feet to 15 feet, increasing its passenger capacity from about 10 to11 people to up to 18 people.
“Now there is a federal certification on stretch limousines which will pre-empt any state action,” Cuomo said in a Feb. 28 interview on WAMC in Albany. “But we’re not looking to ban all stretch limousines; it’s those stretch limousines that may be dangerous because of how the work was actually done.”
Rivenburg’s estate has also filed a notice of intention to file a claim against New York state, charging that the routes 30-30A intersection is unsafe, and state officials knew it. The safety of the intersection is also part of the NTSB’s investigation into the crash.
The NTSB last month issued its preliminary report, which was primarily a factual summation of the circumstances, pending a final report that won’t be released for a year or more, and will contain safety improvement recommendations.
“All aspects of the Schoharie, New York, crash remain under investigation as the NTSB focuses on determining the probable cause, with the intent of issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar crashes,” the agency stated in the preliminary report.