ALBANY & SCHOHARIE – A state Supreme Court judge in Albany has rejected Mavis Discount Tire’s efforts to be removed from legal liability for the 20 deaths that resulted from the October 2018 Schoharie limousine crash, in which the company is accused of not addressing problems with the vehicles brakes.
Acting state Supreme Court Judge Denise A. Hartman on April 2 turned down the corporation’s efforts to be dismissed from the wrongful lawsuits brought by the estate of crash victims against limousine company Prestige Limousine and Chauffer Services of Wilton, members of the Hussain family who owned the limousine, Mavis, and several corporate entities related to Mavis.
Given that the lawsuits are in their early stages, Hartman said her ruling must assume the allegations made against Mavis may be true. The cases charge that the Mavis shop in Saratoga Springs both failed to properly repair the limousine’s brakes and issued the limousine a state Department of Motor Vehicles inspection sticker, although it should have known such large-capacity vehicles are subject to a more-strenuous state Department of Transportation inspection.
“Plaintiffs here allege negligent conduct that created or exacerbated the dangerous condition and reckless and intentional conduct that ‘launched’ as a passenger vehicle for hire a limousine with defective brakes that it was not authorized to inspect — which acts, if proven, may suffice to establish the requisite duty to plaintiffs to support their tort and wrongful death claims,” the judge wrote.
The practical impact, for now, is that Mavis will be legally required to cooperate with attorneys’ efforts to gather evidence.
The crash at the intersection of state routes 30 and 30A on Oct. 6, 2018, killed 17 young adults on their way to a birthday celebration, the driver, and two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store. It was the deadliest surface crash in the United States in more than a decade.
Authorities believe the aging 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limousine suffered catastrophic brake failure while coming down a mile-long hill on Route 30 that afternoon. It sped through a stop sign at Route 30A, crashed into a parked vehicle at the Apple Barrel, and slammed to a stop in a small ravine.
Estates of the victims — many of whom were from the Amsterdam area — have filed lawsuits in various counties, but the 12 cases have been consolidated in state Supreme Court in Albany for purposes of pre-trial motions and evidence discovery.
In court papers, Mavis’ lawyers contended the company doesn’t bear any liability because it wasn’t party to any contract between the limousine company and its passengers, and because its work on the limousine had occurred several months before the fatal crash, so couldn’t be the cause of the crash.
Hartman found, however, that given the number of potentially liable parties and the likelihood of efforts to shift responsibility among them, it’s too soon to remove any one party or exempt them from the evidence-gathering process known as discovery.
“At this stage in the lawsuit, plaintiffs allege multiple tortfeasors — the Hussain defendants, the Mavis defendants, the driver (Scott) Lisinicchia, Apple Barrel Country Store, and the state of New York. It would be premature to cut off any factual findings regarding proximate cause at this early stage of litigation,” Hartman wrote.
The state of New York faces separate lawsuits in the state Court of Claims that allege the DMV and DOT failed to keep the vehicle off the road despite knowing it was unsafe, and that the design of the T-shaped intersection at the bottom of the long Route 30 hill contributed to the crash. Because of previous accidents, DOT had banned large trucks from coming down the hill, but not passenger vehicles.
A National Transportation Safety Board that concluded last fall that brake failure caused the crash, and it found that Mavis “knowingly” inspected the Excursion despite knowing it was improper. But it laid heaviest blame on the Husseins and on the state agencies for not acting more assertively to take the vehicle off the road.
The Times Union first reported the judge’s ruling.
Hartman also issued a series of other procedural rules last week on the civil cases, which are moving forward even though the Schoharie County criminal case against Nauman Hussain, 31, is on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hussain, who was in day-to-day charge of the limousine operation since his father went to Pakistan in March 2018, faces 20 charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, based on a theory that he knowingly allowed a vehicle with unsafe brakes on the road. Outside a court proceeding held before the pandemic, an attorney for Hussain indicated the defense would seek to blame Mavis for the crash, for not doing work Hussain believed had been done on the brakes.
Based on her April 2 decision, Hartman ordered Mavis attorneys by May 21 to submit further responses to the lawsuit, and until June 21 to set forth a schedule for Mavis to respond to requests for evidence.