A prior limousine crash killed 4 in New York. Little changed.
ALBANY – Two years before a horrific crash claimed the lives of 20 people in rural New York, a special grand jury recommended dozens of ways to improve the safety and regulation of stretch limousines — almost all of which went unheeded by state policymakers.
The 2016 report from a Suffolk County grand jury came after a limo crash the previous year left four dead on Long Island, temporarily sparking a conversation about the safety of vehicles that are "stretched" into limousines after they hit the market.
But the detailed, 156-page report ultimately had little impact: Most of its state-level recommendations never made it into law.
Many of the recommendations wouldn't have applied to the deadly Oct. 6 crash in the town of Schoharie, 35 miles west of Albany, where a 2001 Ford Excursion limo ran through an intersection at the bottom of a hill and crashed into an unoccupied SUV, killing the driver, 17 passengers and two bystanders.
Several of them could have, however, including recommendations that the state approve a law requiring seat-belt use in the back seat of limos and that Gov. Andrew Cuomo launch a task force with limousine industry officials to "study the safety of stretch limousines."
Now, with the Schoharie crash launching a new debate about limo safety and regulations in New York, the families of the victims of the 2015 Long Island crash are hoping the grand jury report's proposals could be revived in Albany, where state lawmakers say the issue will get a new look.
"I feel very positive right now that something will occur," said Nancy DiMonte, a Suffolk County resident whose daughter, Joelle, survived the 2015 wreck.
"When it will occur? I don't know. I am, of course, looking for sooner rather than later. That's why complacency is a huge problem. That's why it didn't happen sooner."
The special grand jury was convened by then-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota in 2015, not long after the July 15 crash killed four women in their 20s — Lauren Baruch, Stephanie Belli, Amy Grabina and Brittney Schulman — and seriously injured four others when the limo was struck by a pickup.
The limo was blocking the lane for oncoming traffic while making a U-turn at the time of the wreck.
The grand jurors heard testimony from 47 witnesses, residents, first responders, limousine builders, engineers and government officials over the course of a year. They visited the scene of the crash, viewed the vehicles involved and watched a police enactment of the crash.
Their work culminated with the dense report: A thorough examination of the accident and its causes, how stretch limousines are built and holes in state and federal safety regulations.
The report concluded the deaths and injuries were "entirely preventable, caused by driver failure, improper limousine construction, and inadequate regulatory oversight."
List of recommendations
The final five pages of the report were dedicated to dozens of recommendations on how to prevent future limousine-related tragedies at the intersection of County Road 48 and Depot Lane, the site of the accident.
But many of the recommendations — which were directed at Cuomo, the state Legislature and Long Island officials — had a broader appeal that would apply statewide.
Among them was a proposal to prohibit limousines from making U-turns, noting that the length of the vehicle blocked oncoming traffic that was traveling at a high rate of speed.
The report called on Cuomo to create a task force with limousines industry officials and community groups to study limousine regulation and safety, with the findings reported to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Representatives from the limousine industry said they were unaware of any such task force being launched.
“It’s possible an effort was made, and I can’t say they did not try,” said Jeff Rose, president of the Limo Association of New York. “I’m not aware of an outreach, but it’s quite possible that they did and they weren’t able to find us.”
Another proposal from the report would have required all rear limousine passengers to wear seat belts while traveling.
Cuomo proposed legislation that would require all rear passengers to wear a seat belt regardless of the vehicle, but it was never approved by the Legislature.
"Occupants in the back of a limousine or any vehicle, without seat belts on, are just projectiles, like anything else," a DOT official told the grand jury, according to the report.
"They are apt to get hurt during any type of incident whether it be a fender bender or severe crash."
The massive Schoharie crash, meanwhile, has elevated limousine safety to a major issue at the state Capitol, where lawmakers are scheduled to return in January after their elections this fall.
When asked why the state didn't do more to implement the grand jury's recommendations, Cuomo's office pointed to the actions the state did take against Prestige Limousine, the company whose limo was involved in the crash.
Nauman Hussain, identified by State Police as the day-to-day operator of the company, was charged this month with criminally negligent homicide.
Hussain is accused of being aware that the driver of the limousine, Scott Lisinicchia, wasn't properly licensed to operate a high-capacity limousine and putting the vehicle back on the road after the state took it out of service following an inspection.
“There’s an ongoing criminal investigation and we need to respect that process but to be clear, DOT issued several violations against the vehicle and barred it from being used as a commercial vehicle," Cuomo spokesman Peter Ajemian said in a statement.
"It appears the owner broke the law anyway, which is why one of its operators has already been charged with criminally negligent homicide. This is now a matter for the courts."
Cuomo's office pointed to the governor's seat belt bill and a variety of other bills introduced by lawmakers in the wake of the 2015 Long Island crash, noting they weren't passed by the Legislature and never got to his desk for final approval.
Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo, R-Suffolk County, sponsored one of the bills that would prohibit limos from making U-turns.
A Republican in a heavily Democratic chamber, Palumbo plans to seek co-sponsors for his bill this coming session.
“Generally speaking, a lot of these types of bills ... are somewhat slow to move,” he said.
The governor himself was asked about the Long Island grand jury report in the days following the Schoharie crash.
Cuomo pointed to the actions the state did take against Prestige and suggested the company could face civil and criminal penalties, but did not acknowledge the recommendations in the report.
He noted the federal government certifies the construction of "stretched" limousines, which are essentially regular SUVs or town cars that are cut in half and extended.
"I think the owner of this company, the owner of Prestige has a lot of questions to answer," Cuomo told New York City reporters. "There’s an ongoing investigation. But is there a possibility of liability? Civil and Criminal? Certainly.”
On the federal level, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, both New York Democrats, are calling for greater federal oversight of limousine safety.
On Wednesday, Schumer and Gillibrand called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to implement new regulations that would better evaluate how stretch limos are built, study how to improve passenger safety and improve safety inspections.
"This was our nation’s worst transportation disaster in nearly a decade, and now the federal government has an urgent responsibility to make sure nothing like this ever happens again," Gillibrand said in a statement.
Prior steps taken
The state has taken steps to respond to major bus and limousine accidents before.
In 2011, not long after Cuomo took office, a series of high-profile charter bus crashes led the governor's administration to hurry a new set of regulations into effect, allowing the state Department of Transportation to strip a bus company of its authority to operate in New York if they racked up enough serious safety violations within a period of six months.
The regulations were controversial at the time: The Cuomo administration quickly moved to deny operating authority to eight bus and limousine companies within hours of them being put into effect.
The rule applied to for-hire motor carriers that operate buses, which state law considers any vehicle that can carry at least 11 passengers.
That would include limousines, such as the one involved in the Schoharie crash.
The regulations remain in effect today, though they were scaled back slightly when they were fully implemented in late 2012.
In theory, they would have applied to Prestige Limousine, allowing the state to strip the company's authority to operate in the state when a late August traffic stop revealed Lisinicchia, the driver, wasn't properly licensed to drive the high-occupancy limo.
But according to the state Department of Transporation, Prestige was never granted authority to operate in the first place.
“Prestige was never authorized to operate for-hire passenger service in New York and after inspecting the vehicle, DOT ordered the owner not to operate it," DOT spokesman Joseph Morrissey said in a statement.
The state DOT did, however, inspect Prestige's limousines in March and September, according to federal records. In four out of five inspections, the limos were taken "out of service" by the state inspectors for a variety of safety violations, including some related to the brake system.
Under the state's inspection system, a white and red "out of service" sticker is placed on the windshield when a car fails inspection, with a follow-up inspection required before the car can be put back on the road.
Lee Kindlon, an attorney for Hussain, has claimed that all necessary repairs were made before the car was put back on the road, a claim the state denies.
On Friday, a medical examiner determined the cause of death for all 20 victims to have been "multiple severe traumatic blunt force injuries," according to State Police.
So far, at least one bill has been introduced in Albany since the Schoharie crash.
It would force limos off the road after 10 years and implement new regulations designed to make it tougher to get them back on the road if they fail inspection.
“We need a more comprehensive approach to the inspection and licensure of ‘stretch limos’ to protect all New Yorkers,” said Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, D-Mount Pleasant, Westchester County, who is sponsoring the bill in the Assembly.
Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, Otsego County, said it's too soon to know what fixes to state law and regulations should be put in place until the public knows details about the crash from the NTSB.
That could take months: The Associated Press reported Thursday that the NTSB hasn't been able to inspect the Schoharie limousine, which is being swept for evidence by State Police.
"We anticipate their report and they will make some recommendations, and quite frankly I’m not rushing to judgement on what we should do legislatively and recommend administratively," said Seward, who represents Schoharie.
But Seward added the crash does raise a series of questions about the oversight of limos, saying, "There seems to be a patchwork of regulations when it comes to these limousines."
DiMonte, the mother of one of the surviving victims of the Long Island crash, said the families are banding together to work with state lawmakers to implement change.
"There's no rest from this and we don't expect to rest," she said. "We do want some sort of closure. We want to see the laws go where they need to go. This is senseless, it's needless, it's waste."
Includes reporting by Albany Bureau Chief Joseph Spector and staff writer Chad Arnold.