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Limousine crash investigations continue

Limousine crash investigations continue

Lawyer expects to file notice against state next week
Limousine crash investigations continue
A program for the funeral of newlyweds Erin and Shane McGowan is seen on Oct. 15.
Photographer: Erica Miller

SCHOHARIE -- Two months after the limousine crash in Scoharie that killed 20 people, answers about exactly what happened on Oct. 6 remain elusive.

The investigations by both state and federal authorities are continuing, with officials offering little or no new information on Thursday, the two-month anniversary of the crash. An attorney for one victim's estate said he expects to file a notice of liability against the state early next week, citing the design of the intersection and the condition of the limousine.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating to see if it can make any recommendations to improve transportation safety. A preliminary report normally issued within a few weeks after a crash has been delayed until NTSB inspectors can get access to the vehicle from state police, who are conducting the criminal probe.

The crash of the stretch limousine at state routes 30 and 30A on the Saturday afternoon of Columbus Day weekend turned a birthday party trip to Cooperstown for 17 adults into a devastating tragedy felt across the region. It has raised questions about the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine, its operator, and state responsibilities for it being on the road. Many of those who died were from the Amsterdam area, including four sisters.

Nauman Hussain of Cohoes, the operator of Prestige Limousine & Chauffeur Service of Wilton, has been charged by state police with criminally negligent homicide based on an allegation that he kept the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine on the road even though it had failed state inspections, and the driver was not certified to operate a vehicle with so many passengers.

"It remains under investigation and we can't discuss it," said a spokeswoman for Schoharie County District Attorney Susan A. Mallery, who is expected to present the criminal case against the limo operator to a grand jury for possible indictment.

The company is owned by Hussain's father, Shahed Hussain, a former FBI informant now living in Pakistan, his native country.

The crash occurred when the limousine heading south on Route 30 reached the bottom of a hill and went through a stop sign at Route 30A. It crashed into the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store, striking and killing two pedestrians, then continued  down into a small ravine. The crash killed all 17 passengers in the limo and its driver. It was the deadliest transportation crash in the United States since 2009.

One civil lawsuit has already been filed against Prestige Limousine and the Hussains, and more are expected.

Sal Ferlazzo, the Albany attorney who last month filed the lawsuit on behalf of Amanda Rifenburg's estate, said he isn't frustrated by the pace of the various official investigations.

"It will be very informative, because they're taking a lot of time and effort to look into all the angles, and I think they will develop information that will be very helpful," Ferlazzo said.

Ferlazzo said he anticipates filing an notice of intention to file a notice of claim against the state on Monday. That will give his office more time to investigate before the deadline for filing a notice of claim against the state.

The notice's main thrust will be on a claim that the intersection is unsafe, Ferlazzo said. It was rebuilt by the state Department of Transportation in 2008 to address then-safety concerns, but Ferlazzo said an expert his firm has retained will contend that the changes made the spot less safe. The changes included constructing a new bend in Route 30 at the bottom of the hill to realign the road and create a T-intersection.

Since 2008, the state has reduced weight limits on the hill based on concerns about trucks, and in 2015 the state banned commercial trucks from the hill.

"It made no reference to stretch limos, which are practically trucks. It is a poorly constructed, poorly designed road intersection," Ferlazzo said. "This was a forseeable situation."

DOT officials have said previously that there were four accidents at the intersection since the 2008 reconstruction -- a drop from the previous number of crashes.

The claim will also contend that after the limousine failed inspections, DOT should have required it be taken off the road. "It was absolutely a disaster to have on the road. The state had an obligation to take it off the road," Ferlazzo said.

"This vehicle was never authorized by New York state to operate or carry passengers," DOT spokesman Joseph Morrissey said in a released statement on Thursday. "DOT inspected the crash vehicle as part of random roadside inspections, placed the vehicle out of service, and affixed a sticker to the windshield ordering that the vehicle not be used. The owner/operator of the vehicle removed this sticker and intentionally violated the law, and as a result, one of the owners has been charged with criminally negligent homicide. In light of pending litigation as well as the ongoing criminal investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time."

Ferlazzo said legal claims by victims' families are proceeding slowly because courts need to appoint executors or administrators for the estates before action can be taken, but he expects that dozens of attorneys will eventually be involved. He said he has met with some of them.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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