BALLSTON SPA — A new lawsuit has been filed against key players in the Schoharie limousine disaster that killed 20 people in October 2018.
Mary Ashton, mother of limo passenger Michael C. Ukaj of Caroga and administrator of his estate, filed a complaint Monday in state Supreme Court, Saratoga County. She names the owners of the limo, their companies, the estate of the limo driver and the repair shop that worked on the limo’s brakes.
Also this week, U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, reported that the package of limousine regulatory measures he and U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, are pressing could come to a vote in the House shortly.
Many of the victims lived in Tonko’s hometown; the crash was in Delgado’s district.
The complaint filed Monday on Ashton’s behalf by Albany attorney Brian Premo recounts a now-familiar series of allegations of shortcuts and subterfuge undertaken by the limousine owners in the months before the crash.
It all centers on the badly deteriorated brakes in the massive SUV stretched into a limousine.
On Oct. 6, 2018, the limo’s brakes failed as it came down the Route 30 hill in Schoharie, blew past the stop sign at the T intersection at the bottom, crossed Route 30A at high speed and crashed in a ditch, state police said. All 17 passengers and the driver were killed, along with two bystanders in a parking lot. It was the worst transportation disaster the nation had seen for more than a decade.
The lawsuit alleges that owners Shahed Hussain and son Nauman Hussain knew as early as September 2016 that the brakes on the 2001 Ford were defective; that Mavis Discount Tire knew from the same time that the brake problems were extensive, and did not do repair work that it should have; and that driver Scott Lisinicchia was not licensed to operate the limo, knew the brakes were faulty, and worried that the vehicle would crash on the Route 30 hill.
In extensive detail, the 59-page complaint alleges extensive efforts by the owners to keep the vehicle on the road without paying for a full repair. These include:
- The Hussains improperly operated it as a commercial vehicle (capacity of 15 or more) but registered it as a less heavily-regulated livery vehicle (capacity less than 15).
- There was little or no rear brake function for an extended period of months; for some amount of time, a brake line on the more-than-10,000-pound truck was pinched off with a Vise Grip locking pliers.
- During prom season in 2017, one driver told Nauman Hussain the brakes on the limo were a problem and had to be pumped repeatedly to get the vehicle to stop; another driver refused to transport students to a prom in the limo; another driver took students to a prom in the limo and then refused to drive the vehicle again.
- A Mavis employee in early May 2018 told his manager that the entire brake system needed to be replaced; the manager agreed to perform an inadequate job and told his employees that Nauman was cheap and wanted to make only a temporary repair because he was going to sell the vehicle.
Ashton seeks compensation for injuries Ukaj suffered before his death and for the damages his heir suffered; punitive and exemplary damages; and legal costs.
In an emailed statement Tuesday, Mavis said: “Our thoughts and condolences are with the victims of this tragic accident. However, Mavis bears no legal responsibility for this tragedy and the events that led up to it, and we will defend ourselves vigorously against all claims.”
Tonko and Delgado said Tuesday that their package of limousine safety reforms has been attached to an infrastructure spending package that is moving quickly to a vote on the House floor, possibly by the end of this month.
There is limited expense in the measures, so it may be more likely to survive the partisan bean-counting and horse-trading that will inevitably begin when the infrastructure package moves from the Democrat-controlled House to the Republican-controlled Senate.
New York’s senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, are sponsoring a companion limo reform bill in the U.S. Senate, Tonko’s office said.
The package has three components:
- End the Limo Loophole Act, sponsored by Delgado, closes the “limousine loophole” by reclassifying vehicles used to carry nine or more passengers as commercial motor vehicles. As noted in the lawsuit, current law classifies only vehicles designed for 15 or more passengers as such, allowing many limousines to operate under less rigorous standards.
- Safe Limousines Act, sponsored by Tonko, includes a slate of new federal stretch limousine safety rules and standards for seatbelts, seat integrity, a federal definition for limousines and crash safety research.
- Take Unsafe Limos Off the Road Act, sponsored by Tonko, promotes funding to support states’ efforts to impound or immobilize vehicles that fail inspection for critical safety reasons. The act will incentivize states to take strong actions to keep unsafe limos that fail inspection off the road.
In a news release, Tonko said safety measures such as these are important even amid the COVID crisis: “Our continued progress with these vital and commonsense limousine safety measures is a credit to families from across our state who have shown a truly selfless resolve, turning tragic personal loss and into a resounding call for life-saving reform.”
Delgado said: “On Oct. 6, 2018, our upstate communities suffered a devastating loss when a limo crash killed 20 people in Schoharie. By advancing these bills through committee, we are one step closer to honoring their lives with action and taking tangible steps to improve the safety and security of limousines on the road so no other family suffers.”