How much jail time do you get if your negligence is responsible for the deaths of 20 people?
In Schoharie County, none.
Nauman Hussain, manger of Prestige Limousine Company, accepted a plea deal last week that puts him on probation for five years for one of the deadliest highway crashes in the nation.
The 31-year-old Saratoga resident could have faced up to four years in prison for allowing the limousine to fall into such disrepair that authorities called it a “death trap” by the time of the Oct. 6, 2018, crash.
In accepting the deal, Hussain pleaded guilty to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide. Besides the probation, he will have to complete 1,000 hours of community service and will never again be able to work in the commercial transportation industry.
The fatalities happened when the front and rear brakes of a stretched, 31-foot 2006 Ford Excursion limousine failed as it came down a steep stretch of state Route 30 and careened across Route 30A into the parking lot of the Apple Barrel cafe and shop. There, it crashed into a sport utility vehicle and fatally struck two pedestrians before smashing into an embankment.
Hussain, flanked by his lawyers, sat quietly before Schoharie County Judge George Bartlett III as a parade of relatives of the victims gave emotional impact statements, some of them maintaining he was getting off easy for cutting short the lives of 17 young adults who had hired his limousine to go to Brewery Ommegang. The relatives said the victims were trying to travel to their destination in a responsible way, having no idea the vehicle they had hired a would prove to be a “death trap.”
Hussain defense lawyer Joseph Tacopina told reporters later the terms of the plea bargain were appropriate, noting the maximum penalty that could be meted out to his client is 1 1/3 to four years in prison.
Bartlett acknowledged during the proceeding that the relatives’ hopes for a more punitive sanction “was not an unreasonable opinion.”
Sheila McGarvey of Amsterdam lost her son and daughter-in-law, Shane and Erin McGowan, in the crash. For Hussain’s community service, McGarvey said, “He should work with a medical examiner in a morgue and witness the autopsies of 20 victims of car crashes.”
Bartlett said an investigation by Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery as well as a scathing report by the National Transportation Safety Board into the causes of the accident revealed that the mechanical disrepair of the vehicle was at least partly the fault of a chain of repair shops, Mavis, and a state inspection system that did not pinpoint the condition of the brakes.
“There was obviously no criminal intent on Mr. Hussain’s part,” Tacopina said.
Yes, there is plenty of blame to go around, but Hussain was ultimately responsible for making sure his vehicles were safe. He didn’t do that.
Tacopina said Hussain is willing to assist the victims’ families in pending civil lawsuits alleging there was negligence involved in the inspections that led to the limousine staying in service despite its mechanical defects.
“He will give them whatever justice he can give them, which I believe will help them,” the lawyer said.
Nothing Hussain does can bring real justice to these families. Mallery accepting a deal that is little more than a slap on the wrist is a slap in the face the loved ones of the 20 people who died because of Hussain’s negligence.