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The Limousine Loophole

TRAGEDY STRIKES AGAIN

On a crisp fall day in Schoharie, New York, 17 people gathered to celebrate the 30th birthday of a friend. The birthday girl and her husband had decided to be safe and rent a party bus to transport the large group to the brewery where the celebration was to occur; with transportation provided, everyone who wanted to drink alcoholic beverages could do so and not worry about driving. The party bus that was ordered never arrived, but a stretch limousine came in its place.

On the way to the brewery, the limousine ran through an intersection, crashed into a parked SUV, hit and killed 2 people standing nearby, and landed in a ravine. All 17 passengers and the driver were killed. The 20 fatalities of the October 6, 2018 accident mark the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in nearly a decade.

By October 7, 2018, the National Transportation Safety Board was on the scene investigating the accident. As part of an agreement arising from a previous accident in 2015 involving a stretch limousine that resulted in multiple fatalities, the NTSB investigates and collects data on all limousine crashes.

LIMOUSINE LOOPHOLES

Within 48 hours after the horrific accident in Schoharie, Governor Andrew Cuomo released a statement noting that the driver of the limousine had not been properly licensed, and the limousine had failed a New York State DMV inspection in September, indicating that the vehicle should not have been on the road. So why was it?

The stretch-limousine industry has had many problems over the decades, most of which exist due to the lax regulatory environment in which the industry has been allowed to grow and profit. Many stretch limousines are not made by car manufacturers but are vehicles converted from larger vehicles or SUVs into long, party limousines. In the horrific accident described above, the stretch limousine was originally a 2001 Ford Excursion that sat 9 people; it was converted to accommodate 18 people, mostly by adding seats along the sides.

The “stretched” vehicle does not have safety measures such as side air bags, reinforced rollover protection bars, and accessible emergency exits. While cars and SUVs are designed after numerous crash studies and from computer models based on those studies, converted stretch limousines are chopped in two with seats added in the middle. Conversions are almost never done by the original manufacturer of the vehicle, and there are no stringent federal safety requirements and inspections that apply. These vehicles exist within the “limousine loophole” where they are not actually limousines, and therefore not subject to the safety requirements that apply to those vehicles, and no longer the vehicles they were before conversion, so they are not subject to the safety requirements applicable to SUVs or cars either.

Steering and controlling a large, unwieldy vehicle like a stretch limousine is very difficult. When SUVs encountered rollover crashes with fatalities, it led to the requirement of electronic stability control mechanisms. There is no such innovation and requirement to help steer and control stretch limousines. In fact, even the minimal safety feature of using seat belts is often ignored or not required in stretch limousines.

SHADY PAST MAY HAVE LED TO DANGEROUS PRESENT

The absence of strict regulatory requirements applicable to converted vehicles also leaves room for fraud and shady business practices. In the case of the Schoharie accident, the limousine company that provided the stretch limousine, Prestige Limousine, has a colorful history. Its owner, Shahed Hussain, was caught fraudulently obtaining driver’s licenses and committing other criminal acts in the early 2000s. In exchange for leniency, he became an FBI informant, recruiting and then helping to convict terrorists in two high-profile plots. His past includes a bankruptcy filing, after which he started Prestige Limousine. His son, Nauman Hussain, operates the business. Nauman Hussain was taken into custody on October 10, 2018, and was charged with criminally negligent homicide. Authorities are seeking Shahed Hussain, who is believed to be in Pakistan.

As was noted above, the limousine involved in the tragic accident of October 6, 2018, had failed an inspection last month, one that included testing of its breaks. Additionally, the driver of the vehicle did not have the proper license. Whether the Hussains’ fraudulent past played a role in the present acts of fraud has yet to be determined, but the types of offenses suggest a connection.

BUYER—OR RENTER—BEWARE

With the lack of safety regulations applicable to stretch limousines, some have advocated a buyer—or more accurately, a renter—beware approach. People renting these party vehicles must do their own due diligence on the company, the driver, and the history of the vehicle. Others point out that driver and vehicle safety should not be left to individual users, and determination of fitness must be a state-wide effort, just as it is with other vehicles and drivers. With so much riding on the outcome—pun intended—the latter argument is more persuasive.

CONTACT YOUR ATTORNEY

If you or someone you know has been involved in an accident with a stretch limousine, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation regarding your legal rights.

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