Inspector cites regulatory gaps in fatal New York limo crash

FILE - Nauman Hussain, the operator of a limousine company involved in a crash that killed 20 people in upstate New York, leaves the Schoharie County court house Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, in Schoharie, N.Y. New York regulators failed to do all they could to sideline a poorly maintained stretch limousine that careened down a hill and crashed in 2018, killing 20 people, according to a state watchdog, Friday, Oct. 28, 2022.(AP Photo/Hans Pennink) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York regulators failed to do all they could to sideline a poorly maintained stretch limousine that careened down a hill and crashed in 2018, killing 20 people, according to a state watchdog.

State Inspector General Lucy Lang released a report Friday night echoing federal regulators who concluded in 2020 that the Department of Transportation and Department of Motor Vehicles fell short in their oversight of the limousine, which crashed into a shallow ravine west of Albany, New York, on Oct. 6, 2018.

The operator, Prestige, repeatedly changed the listed number of seats in the 2001 Ford Excursion limo and took other steps to avoid safety regulations, government officials have said.

The inspector's report said that while the office discovered no evidence of misconduct or malfeasance by employees of the two agencies, it found “significant gaps in policies, procedures and interagency communications” that kept the limousine operator's misconduct from being promptly identified and addressed.

The inspector said regulators missed opportunities to identify problems with the limo's registration and that the transportation department didn't take all the steps available to have the vehicle's license plates seized.

“Egregious actors who repeatedly flout DOT’s regulations, such as Prestige, must be matched with a more urgent response,” according to the report.

The transportation department strongly disagreed with some assertions in the report, including the conclusion that it could have unilaterally initiated a plate seizure process, said Marie Therese Dominguez, a commissioner with the agency.

The agencies agreed with the report's policy recommendations to increase limousine safety.

Axel Steenburg had rented the limousine for the 30th birthday of his new wife. Seventeen family members and friends were killed when the limousine crashed, along with the driver and two bystanders outside a country store.

The National Transportation Safety Board in 2020 found the crash was likely caused by Prestige's “egregious disregard for safety” that resulted in brake failure on a long downhill stretch of road and that ineffective state oversight contributed.

Prestige operator Nauman Hussain faces trial next spring on 20 counts each of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree manslaughter. A judge recently threw out a plea deal that would have allowed him to avoid serving prison time.

Hussain's lawyers say he tried to maintain the limousine and relied on what he was told by state officials and a repair shop that inspected it.