It was supposed to be a fun-filled day of birthday celebration. Instead, it became the deadliest transportation accident in the United States since 2009, when a plane crash resulted in 50 fatalities. The accident, which occurred in the small town of Schoharie, New York on the afternoon of Saturday, October 6, killed 20 people when a stretch limousine – which had failed safety inspections shortly before the crash and was, according to Governor Andrew Cuomo, “not supposed to be on the road” – sped through a busy intersection. Not only did the vehicle, a converted 2001 Ford Excursion, fail critical inspections shortly before the accident; in addition, the limo driver was not licensed to operate the vehicle. Our Pennsylvania limo accident lawyers examine how this tragic event occurred, and discuss some of the factors that can make limousines dangerous. We will continue to post updates as investigators uncover more information about the causes of the crash.
Fatal Limousine Accident Kills 20 Victims, Including 2 Pedestrians
With a population of just over 3,000, Schoharie, New York is normally a quiet town. But earlier this month, it became the site of the largest loss of life from a U.S. accident in nearly a decade. Now, investigators and distraught family members are searching for answers. What led to this disaster, and could it have been avoided?
While the search for underlying causes continues, investigators have pieced together the events that occurred in the moments before the accident. On the afternoon of October 6, a group of 17 passengers – including four sisters from the same family – entered a converted stretch limousine that was supposed to transport the group to a brewery in upstate New York for a birthday celebration.
The vehicle never arrived at the brewery. On a downhill approach to the hectic T-intersection where Route 30 and Route 30A meet near Schoharie Creek, the limousine failed to come to a stop, speeding out of control while proceeding through the intersection until striking an unoccupied vehicle.
All but one of the victims died at the crash site, while another individual died from their injuries after being hospitalized. In addition to killing all 18 occupants of the vehicle, including driver Scott T. Lisinicchia, the crash also claimed the lives of two pedestrians who were walking near the parking lot of Apple Barrel Country Store, which is located closed to the accident site.
The country store’s manager, 36-year-old Jessica Kirby, witnessed the accident take place. “That limo was coming down that hill probably over 60 miles per hour,” she told reporters, adding, “I don’t want to describe the scene. It’s not something I want to think about.”
For the victims’ surviving loved ones, thinking about the crash is even more painful. Karina Halse, who lost sister Amanda – someone she called the “peacekeeper of the family” – described her heart as “completely sunken,” adding, “I can’t even imagine how it happened, or why it happened.”
That is what accident investigators are now trying to determine. Text messages sent in the hours before the accident may reveal critical details. One passenger, Erin McGowan, texted a friend saying, “The motor is making everyone deaf,” and, “When we get to brewery we will all b deaf.”
Safety Violations, Lack of Licensing Factors in Deadly Limo Crash
Records show that the limousine failed to pass safety inspections in the weeks leading up to the accident – and that its driver lacked the appropriate license. As Cuomo said in a public statement, “That vehicle was inspected by the New York State Department of Transportation last month and failed inspection and was not supposed to be on the road. The driver needed what’s called a CDL,” he explained, “a commercial driver license with a passenger endorsement. The driver did not have that proper license.”
Nor was this accident the first negative mark on the safety record of Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service, the company which owned the vehicle. According to State Police Maj. Robert Patnaude, “That company and that vehicle have been under [the] scrutiny of [the Department of Transportation] in the past.”
Investigators have already seized four of the company’s vehicles, including the wreckage of the limousine involved in the accident, for further examination. In addition, Cuomo stated that “a cease-and-desist order to stop Prestige Limousine from operating [is being sought] until the investigation is concluded.”
Even without defects or violations, stretch limousines may pose hidden dangers. In an interview with CNN, Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), expressed concerns that “after-market modifications often affect a vehicle’s structural integrity and safety,” potentially increasing the risk of serious and catastrophic injuries when accidents occur. For example, limousines typically feature floor-to-ceiling pillars that enclose and help to protect passengers. In modified vehicles, these pillars are sometimes absent.
Not only do the modifications themselves heighten the danger for occupants, drivers, and others on the road – so do the “Frankenstein laws for [these] Frankenstein vehicles,” according to Deborah Hersman of the National Safety Council. Hersman, who previously chaired the NTSB, has also been critical of the recordkeeping procedures around limousine crashes, which have killed at least 68 people since 2000. Another car accident involving a stretch limousine, like the vehicle in Saturday’s crash, killed four people in 2015 when the vehicle, transporting a bridal party of eight, collided with a passenger truck. That accident also took place in a small New York town, Cutchogue on Long Island Sound.
In addition to safety violations and lack of licensing, the roadway itself may also have been a contributing factor to the accident. Speaking with the New York Times, Schoharie resident Alan Tavenner, who is also the town’s supervisor, described the intersection as “nasty,” noting previous unsuccessful attempts to modify the road’s design. He added, “I honestly think it was a more dangerous intersection than it was before.”
Victims identified in the crash were Savannah D. Bursese, 24; Matthew W. Coons, Bursese’s boyfriend, 27; Rachael K. Cavosie, 30; Patrick K. Cushing, 31; Axel Steenburg, 29; Rich Steenburg, Axel’s brother, 34; Amy Steenburg, Axel’s wife, who was celebrating turning 30; three of Amy’s sisters, 34-year-old Abby Jackson, 31-year-old Allison King, and 33-year-old Mary Dyson; Robert J. Dyson, Mary’s husband, 34; Adam Jackson, Abby’s husband, 34; Amanda D. Halse, 26; Brian Hough, who was one of the pedestrians struck by the vehicle, 46; Erin R. McGowan, who sent the text messages about the motor noise, 34; Shane T. McGowan, Erin’s husband, 30; Amanda Rivenburg, 29; pedestrian James Schnurr, father-in-law to Hough, 70; Michael C. Ukaj, 34; and driver Scott T. Lisinicchia, 53. Our thoughts are with their surviving loved ones.
UPDATE: Nauman Hussain, 28, whom police report operated Prestige, has been taken into custody and charged with criminally negligent homicide.
Pennsylvania Limo Accident Attorneys Fighting for Injury Victims
Limousines and stretch limousines are supposed to offer a luxurious – and more importantly, safe – mode of transportation for parties, weddings, birthdays, bridal showers, and other events. However, factors like inconsistent regulation, noncompliance with safety standards, and even flawed roadway design can all increase the risk of a serious or deadly accident.
If you or one of your family members was in injured in a limousine or party bus accident, the experienced personal injury lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm are here to offer support and guidance. We can fight to hold unsafe drivers, limo companies that commit violations, and other parties responsible for your medical bills, lost earnings, and the pain and suffering caused by the accident. To speak confidentially about your legal options after a limousine accident in a free consultation, contact The Reiff Law Firm online, or call our law offices at (215) 246-9000.