In a shock move, a New York state judge has rejected a year-long settlement that allowed a limousine company operator to avoid jail time for his role in an accident that killed 20 people.
Wednesday’s legal reversal in Schoharie drew applause from victims’ families and plunged limousine boss Nauman Hussain into legal uncertainty after he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Supreme Court Justice Peter Lynch, who was not presiding over the case when the settlement in Hussain’s case was reached last September, called the agreement “fundamentally flawed”.
It would have spared Hussain jail time and angered the families of people killed when a brake failure sent a stretch limo full of birthday revelers down a hill in 2018.
Nauman Hussain, right, listens as Judge Peter Lynch rejects his year-old plea deal to avoid jail time during a trial Wednesday in Schoharie County court
Judge Lynch called the plea deal “completely disingenuous and unacceptable to this court.”
Hussain’s attorneys Lee Kindlon (left) and Chad D. Siegel speak to reporters after Judge Peter Lynch rejected a settlement that allowed him to avoid jail time
The judge’s denial caught lawyers and relatives unprepared. Family members, who had just expressed their sadness and anger that no one was responsible for the fatal crash, clapped and dabbed their eyes after the judge’s announcement.
“I can’t even put into words how I feel. Completely unexpected. Thank God,” said Jill Richardson-Perez, the mother of limo crash victim Matthew Coons, as she exited court. “I’m in a better place now.”
Kevin Cushing, who lost his son Patrick in the crash, said the families have “hope that there will be some justice in the future where justice hasn’t happened to us in the past”.
Defense attorney Chad Seigel said they were “shocked” and that the judge’s move was “outrageous”.
Hussain, who operated the Prestige sedan, had been charged with 20 counts each of involuntary manslaughter and second-degree manslaughter in what was the deadliest US traffic accident in a decade.
The agreement had required Hussain to plead guilty only to the murder counts, resulting in five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service.
The case dates back to October 2018, when a man rented a 2004 Ford Excursion sedan [a similar model pictured above] for the 30th birthday of his new wife from Hussain’s company
The accident killed 17 family members and friends, as well as the limousine driver and two bystanders
Lawyers for both sides said last year that the plea agreement guaranteed a settlement in a case that, if brought before a jury, would have had an uncertain outcome.
Lynch noted that a state Department of Transportation out-of-service sticker had been placed on the sedan a month before the accident.
State police recovered the sticker from Hussain’s private car after his arrest. Prosecutors have argued Hussain removed the sticker from the sedan’s windshield so he could use it for more jobs.
To the judge, Hussain’s actions showed that he knew the risk of putting the sedan on the road on the day of the accident, and a guilty plea solely to involuntary manslaughter does not reflect that.
A charge of second-degree manslaughter is charged when a defendant is accused of being aware of and disregarding the danger of death.
Lynch called the deal “completely disingenuous and unacceptable to this court.”
Lynch gave Hussain’s attorneys the choice of accepting a sentence of 1 1/3 to four years in prison or withdrawing his guilty plea. They chose the latter.
Hussain, who operated the Prestige sedan, had been charged with 20 counts each of involuntary manslaughter and second-degree manslaughter in what was the deadliest US transportation disaster in a decade
Nauman Hussain, right, waits with his attorneys during a hearing in Schoharie County Court on Wednesday
Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery listens as Judge Peter Lynch rejects a plea agreement for Nauman Hussain to avoid jail time
Seigel said afterwards that the DOT sticker had “absolutely nothing to do with defective brakes”.
“Together we decided that it was best for everyone involved – not just our client, but members of the community – to put this matter behind. A small wrench was thrown in,” Seigel said. ‘So the judge forced his hand on us and we are ready for the trial.’
District Attorney Susan Mallery left the court without comment.
Hussain, who sat with his head down most of the time, declined to comment afterwards.
While the National Transportation Safety Board concluded the accident was likely caused by the Prestige sedan’s “egregious disregard for safety,” which led to a brake failure, the board said ineffective government oversight contributed.
Lawyers for Hussain say he attempted to service the sedan, relying on what he was told by state officials and a repair shop that inspected it.
Axel Steenburg rented the 2001 Ford Excursion sedan for his wife Amy’s 30th birthday on October 6, 2018.
The partying group, aged 24 to 34, included Axel’s brother, Amy’s three sisters and two of her husbands, as well as close friends.
The limousine drove to a brewery in Cooperstown, New York to celebrate Amy Steenburg’s 30th birthday. Amy was killed along with her new husband Axel (with her above)
Amy’s three sisters – Allison, Mary and Abby – were also killed. Pictured: Allison King (center) Abby Jackson (front left), Amy (front right) and Mary Dyson (back row, right)
Matthew Coons, a US Army veteran, was killed along with his girlfriend, Savannah Devonne
On the way to a brewery, the limo’s brakes failed on a downhill road in Schoharie, west of Albany. The vehicle ran over a stop sign at over 160 km/h and crashed into a small ravine.
The accident killed the limousine driver, 17 passengers and two bystanders outside the store.
Mallery’s office said Hussain allowed passengers to ride in the limousine despite receiving “several notices of violations” from the state and being told repairs were inadequate.
State police said the vehicle should have been taken out of service due to brake problems, which were discovered during an inspection a month before the accident.
The next court date is scheduled for September 14th. Hussain, who is serving a year’s provisional probation, is being released on bail and being monitored by GPS.
Lynch only announced his decision after several relatives spoke out about their ongoing pain and sense of loss.
Sheila McGarvey told the court that her 30-year-old son, Shane McGowan, is just beginning his life with his new wife, Erin McGowan, who is also driving in the limousine.
“I keep calling my son Shane’s name,” McGarvey said, “but no one answers.”
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11166313/New-York-judge-tosses-no-prison-plea-deal-deadly-2018-limo-crash.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&ito=1490 New York judge throws out no-prison plea deal in fatal 2018 limo accident