CAPITOL -- The state Legislature has reacted to last October's tragic stretch limousine crash in Schoharie with new laws giving state agencies clearer authority to pull limousines off the road when they fail inspections or are determined to be unsafe.
The 2020 state budget adopted early Monday morning also establishes a new felony crime if an operator knowingly puts a faulty limousine on the road and one or more fatalities result. It also takes a number of steps to crack down on limousine inspection violations.
The legislation stems directly from the Oct. 6 limousine crash at routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie that resulted in the deaths of 20 people -- all 17 limousine passengers, the driver, and two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store.
Subsequent investigations have shown that the limousine involved -- a 2001 Ford Excursion that had been stretched after-market to hold up to 19 people -- had failed inspections, and owner Prestige Limousine of Wilton had kept it on the road anyway. The operator, Nauman Hussain of Cohoes, faces a felony charge of criminally negligent homicide; a Schoharie County grand jury is reviewing the case.
While state police and National Transportation Safety Board investigations continue, there were also nearly immediate calls for new state legislation to address unsafe vehicles. The industry anticipates more limousine legislation could be considered later in the session.
In his 2020 executive budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo initially called for a ban on stretch limousines. Later, however, be backed away from a total ban, to which other limousine companies have objected.
According to a press release late Sunday from Cuomo's office, the just-adopted budget creates a new Class E felony for operating a limousine that causes a death, and increases civil penalties, including fines, for operating without state Department of Transportation authority or violating DOT safety regulations. DOT has inspection responsibility over large-capacity commercial vehicles, including stretch limousines.
New laws also give both state police and DOT clearer authority to confiscate license plates when limos are out of compliance, along with granting the Department of Motor Vehicles authority to revoke registrations for limos that don't meet federal safety standards. It also requires state-certified inspection stations to report if a limousine that requires DOT inspection seeks a DMV inspection instead, with a possible penalty of having its certification suspended if it doesn't report.
Commercial vehicles with a capacity of eight or more passengers will be required to carry at least $1.5 million in insurance coverage. The minimum coverage has been $500,000.
So far, the estate of one crash victim, Amanda Rifenburg, has filed a lawsuit against Prestige Limousine, charging the company with negligence. The estate's attorneys have also filed initial paperwork that could lead to a lawsuit against the state.
David Brown, the owner of Premiere Transportation in Albany, said the legislation is good, but said he was disappointed that the industry, which has been working for months with local state representatives, had little input in the adopted legislation, introduced late in the budget process by Cuomo.
"None of this was in the budget as of three or four days ago," he said.
Still, he said the new laws address the issues around operating an improperly inspected vehicle raised by the Schoharie crash, and appear to address issues it revealed like DMV inspection stations doing inspections that DOT should have done because the vehicle's capacity, and the state's failure to pull plates from the vehicle after a failed DOT inspection.
"I think they always had the authority, but now they have no gray area," Brown said.
It is also good that inspection stations will bear liability if a faulty limousine gets through, or face consequences if they don't report that limousine to DOT, he said.
"These are good things, and these are things being talked about that would have prevented the accident in Schoharie," Brown said. "That vehicle should never had been on the road, and this would have prevented that."
"A big thing we think is going to hurt the small guys is the new insurance requirement," Brown said. "This is going to make the insurance companies look at if they want to do business with these guys, and if they do, they will see the premiums increase."
The new laws also include a prohibition on stretch limousines making U-turns -- a provision initiated by Long Island Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean-Pierre, but which Brown also said was good legislation.