SCHOHARIE — Schoharie County District Attorney Susan J. Mallery on Wednesday pushed back forcefully against the argument that faulty work by a Mavis Discount Tire store contributed to the cause of last year's Schoharie limousine crash.
Lawyers for Prestige Limousine operator Nauman Hussain have argued that a former manager's statement that the Mavis shop in Saratoga Springs didn't replace the master brake cylinder on the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine involved in the crash, as once planned, shows that Hussain isn't criminally responsible. Mallery has disclosed that information to the defense in a June 7 letter, as part of pre-trial disclosures.
The defense was already seeking to have the charges dismissed, on the grounds that Hussain could not have reasonably foreseen the circumstances of the accident, and is therefore not criminally responsible.
On Wednesday, Mallery responded in a letter to Schoharie County Court Judge George R. Barltett III, who is considering the defense motion.
"The information provided to defendant does not remotely exonerate him," Mallery wrote. "The People diligently provided the information in its Oct. 7 letter pursuant to the People's discovery obligations in case the defense may -- or may not -- chose to use it at trial."
Hussain, 29, of Wilton, faces 20 counts of second-degree manslaughter and 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide in connection with the Oct. 6, 2018, crash at the intersection of Routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie that killed all 17 passengers, the driver, and two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store.
Prosecutors and police believe the brakes on the aging limousine suffered "catastrophic failure" at the vehicle came down a long hill on Route 30. In a September interview, former Mavis manager Virgil Park told investigators that a master brake cylinder was ordered by not installed on May 11, 2018, and a brake line was bled, even though a Mavis system code said it was "flushed."
"There was nothing in Mr. Park's statements that indicated that services customers requested were not performed," Mallery said.
In the letter, Mallery also disclosed information not previously public about the findings of a prosecution expert, Brian Chase, who examined the brake system.
"Neither the master cylinder not the lack of a brake system flush contributed to the catastrophic brake failure that lead to the deadly crash on Oct. 6, 2018," Mallery wrote in bold-faced type in one section of the four-page letter.
Chase found that the master cylinder in the crashed vehicle -- which converts mechanical pressure on the brake pedal into hydraulic pressure on the brakes -- was working properly, and the brake failure was due to other problems of which Hussain should have been aware.
"Mr. Chase opined that the catastrophic brake failure in the defendant's limousine was the result of pre-existing deficiencies causing reduced braking ability with the front brakes, a reduced braking ability with the left rear brake, an inoperable right rear brake, and a corroded rear crossover brake tube," Mallery wrote. "The pre-existing deficiencies -- not the master cylinder nor the lack of a brake system flush -- resulted in the chain of events that lead to the ultimate failure of the brakes."
In a written response Wednesday night, Hussain's attorneys said Mallery is now seeking to minimize the significance of the revelations about Mavis, by describing the allegedly fraudulent billings as simply "inaccuracies."
The crash, wrote attorney Chad Siegel, "directly resulted from a failure of the brakes themselves which, according to the District Attorney’s prior letter, Mavis falsely claimed on an invoice to have serviced. For the District Attorney to now say that 'the lack of a system brake flush' did not cause the failure of the brakes turns a blind eye to reality... Of course Mavis’s failure to service the brakes properly would cause the brakes to not function properly."
"Rather than falsely accusing an innocent man, the community would be better served if the District Attorney focused its intention on Mavis’s alleged fraudulent billing practices, which is apparently the true direct cause of this tragic accident," Siegel continued.
Mallery said that Hussain had the vehicle on the road despite its having failed state Department of Transportation inspections due to mechanical issues, including the brakes.
"The defendant was repeatedly informed, from March 2018 until just before the crash, that he had to bring the limousine into DOT compliance -- which included an extensive NYSDOT bus inspection and regulations requiring brakes working on all wheels," she wrote. "Such an inspection would have revealed many of the deficiencies in the defendant's limousine."
Hussain brought the vehicle to the Mavis shop on May 11, 2018, for a Department of Motor Vehicles inspection, even though large-capacity limousines are supposed to be subject to the more-stringent DOT inspections rather than DMV inspections.
Mavis, which issued the needed sticker, has denied any wrongdoing. The DMV confirmed on Tuesday that it is investigating the Mavis store.
The question of whether to dismiss the the charges is among the pre-trial matters that Judge Bartlett must decide. The trial is currently scheduled for March.