WEIGHING IN – We know what happened on Oct. 6, 2018.
We know 17 friends and family members out celebrating a 30th birthday died when the stretch limo they were inside lost control in Schoharie County and crashed, killing them, the driver and two people outside the Apple Barrel Country Store.
But throughout opening statements, given by both sides Monday morning, in the trial of Prestige Limousine’s 33-year-old operator Nauman Hussain, chances at a different outcome arose again … and again … and again.
This story could have ended differently if things had changed 32 days before the crash. That’s when a state Department of Transportation inspector declared the limo out of service, citing multiple violations during a roadside evaluation. He placed a sticker on the limo’s window signifying the designation.
This story could have ended differently if things had changed 42 days before the crash. That’s when the 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limo that suffered catastrophic brake failure on Oct. 6, 2018, was stopped while out in Saratoga Springs. Scott Lisinicchia, the same driver behind the wheel during the crash, was found not to have the proper marking on his license allowing him to transport a vehicle carrying so many passengers, Fred Rench, the special counsel assigned by the prosecution, told the jurors.
This story could have ended differently if things changed in July of 2018. That’s when Hussain brought the vehicle to Mavis Discount Tire in Saratoga Springs for service.
Rench told jurors Hussain declined recommended brake repair work estimated at no more than $1,000. The defense maintains Mavis billed for repair work in 2018 that it failed to compete, or completed shoddily.
This story could have ended differently if things changed on May 11, 2018. That’s when Mavis inspected the stretch limo. Rench laid out for jurors that vehicles that can seat 17 passengers like the limo are supposed to be inspected by DOT state-certified inspectors, and Mavis was only certified by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Rench outlined that Mavis completed the inspection because the registration showed the limo had a lesser seating capacity that would have permitted the repair shop to conduct the inspection.
This story could have ended differently if things changed March 21, 2018. That’s when the DOT inspector who placed the limo out of service 32 days before the crash, placed the limo out of service during a prior roadside inspection.
This story could have ended differently if things had changed in January of 2018. That’s when the same DOT inspector, after researching limo companies in the Saratoga area, found out Hussain was operating limo companies that were booking outings for more people than they were certified to transport, according to the prosecution.
This story could have ended differently if things changed on June 8, 2017. That’s when the state DOT inspector, who eventually placed the limo out of service, first encountered the 30-foot heavily modified Ford Excursion at the Mavis shop in Saratoga Springs. After pulling up the license and the vehicle identification number, the inspector realized the registration listed the seating capacity as less than what the limo could actually hold, according to the prosecution.
The inspector didn’t immediately stop Mavis from working on the vehicle or call the vehicle’s owner, according to the defense.
This story could have ended differently if in 2016 Hussain and his father, Shahed Hussain, never purchased the limo from Advantage Transit Group, putting the title under Shahed’s name to be used by a company eventually operated by Nauman.
This story could have ended differently if just one thing changed at so many points leading up to the crash.
Yet, as defense attorney Lee Kindlon said during his opening statements, “here we are.”
We’ve arrived at the start of a trial attempting to determine culpability for the 20 deaths that occurred on Oct. 6, 2018. Over the next month or so, we’ll hear a lot of evidence from both sides pointing fingers and deflecting blame.
Is Hussain at fault for ignoring regulations?
Did Mavis complete the work the mechanics billed for?
Should the state have intervened more forcefully?
But no matter the answers to these questions, it’s too late to arrive at a different ending, one in which the 17 friends and family members happily arrive safely at the brewery in Cooperstown.
Despite so many chances, nothing will change the fact that this is a story about 20 people who are never coming home.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.