A tragic limousine accident last weekend killed 17 passengers, the driver, and two pedestrians, rocked the small town of Schoharie, New York, and raised new questions about limo safety, licensing, and legal liability.
According to reports, the modified 2001 Ford Excursion had recently failed a state safety inspection, the driver did not have the proper license to drive the vehicle, and even one of the passengers texted her concerns about the limo before the crash. The vehicle "was not supposed to be on the road," according to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. So, who is liable for the accident?
NPR reports that similar stretch SUV limousines are often created by modifying an existing vehicle, "essentially sawing it in half, then lengthening the body and refurbishing the interior." Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the nonprofit National Safety Council and former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, told NPR, "When we look at limousines and stretch limos, we see a really Frankenstein system of cars that potentially are cut up and put back together with parts and pieces that were not original to them. And additionally, some things may be taken off -- things like air bags or seat belts."
The limo, on its way to the Ommegang Brewery in Cooperstown for a birthday celebration, barreled through an intersection which was already known to locals at notoriously dangerous and through which local officials had banned large trucks from travelling. According to investigators, the stretch SUV failed to stop, crossed the busy highway, glanced off a second vehicle in a parking lot, struck and killed the two pedestrians, and then crashed into a shallow ravine.
Robert Sumwalt, the chairman of the NTSB, said there was extensive damage to the front and left side of the limousine, that the engine of the Excursion had been thrust backward into the driver's compartment, and that there were no skid marks leading to the crash site. While not indicating whether the limo driver had been speeding, Sumwalt cited evidence of a "high-energy" impact.
Blaming the Doctor
As noted, the "Frankenstein vehicle" itself had failed an inspection last month, and the limousine company, Prestige Limousine, has a trail of failed inspections and ties to a scheme to illegally obtain driver's licenses. Yesterday, investigators moved to suspend the company's operations and seize its remaining vehicles.
As of now, no lawsuits have been filed in the accident, but litigation is expected as the investigation proceeds.