SCHOHARIE, N.Y. — A judge rejected a plea agreement that would have meant no prison time for the operator of a limousine company involved in a crash that killed 20 people in upstate New York, drawing applause and tears Wednesday from victims’ relatives who packed the court.
Judge Peter Lynch, who was not presiding over the case when the deal was reached a year ago, called the agreement “fundamentally flawed.”
The deal reached by prosecutors and lawyers for Nauman Hussain would have spared him prison time, angering the families of the people killed in 2018 when brake failure sent a stretch limo full of birthday revelers hurtling down a hill.
Hussain, who operated Prestige Limousine, had been charged with 20 counts each of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree manslaughter in what was the deadliest U.S. transportation disaster in a decade.
The agreement had called for Hussain to plead guilty only to the homicide counts, resulting five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service. Lawyers for both sides said last year the plea agreement assured a resolution in a case that would have faced an uncertain outcome if presented to a jury.
While the National Transportation Safety Board concluded the crash was likely caused by Prestige Limousine’s “egregious disregard for safety” that resulted in brake failure, the board said ineffective state oversight contributed.
Lee Kindlon, an attorney for Hussain, has said his client tried to maintain the limousine and relied on what he was told by state officials and a repair shop that inspected it.
On Oct. 6, 2018, Axel Steenburg rented the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine for the 30th birthday of his new wife, Amy. The party group, ranging in age from 24 to 34, included Axel’s brother, Amy’s three sisters and two of their husbands, and close friends.
En route to a brewery near Cooperstown, the limo’s brakes failed on a downhill stretch of state Route 30 in Schoharie, west of Albany. The vehicle blew through a stop sign at a T-intersection at over 100 mph (160 kph) and crashed into a small ravine near a popular country store.
Seventeen family members and friends were killed, along with the driver and two bystanders outside the store.
On Wednesday, Lynch said Hussain’s actions show he knew the risk of putting the limousine on the road the day of the crash, and letting him plead only to the criminally negligent homicide counts does not reflect that.
Lynch specifically referenced a state Department of Transportation out-of-service sticker had been placed on the limousine a month before the crash. State Police recovered the sticker from Hussain’s car after his arrest. Prosecutors have argued Hussain took the sticker off the limo’s windshield so that he could rent it for more jobs.
Lynch gave Hussain’s lawyers the choice of accepting a sentence of 1 1/3 to four years in prison or withdrawing his guilty plea. They chose the latter.
The next court date has been set for Sept. 14. Hussain, who had been on interim probation, will go out on bail and be subject to GPS monitoring.