Federal investigators said Tuesday that a limo company's "egregious disregard for safety" was behind a 2018 crash that killed 20 people in upstate New York.
In a news release, the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, also faulted the state Transportation Department, which it said contributed to the crash through "ineffective oversight" of the company, Prestige Limousine.
The agency said a brake system failure on the modified SUV that a group of friends had rented for a surprise party led to the crash on Oct. 6, which killed all 17 passengers, the driver and two pedestrians in rural Schoharie, west of Albany.
Among the dead were four sisters and the husbands of three of them.
Investigators concluded that the limo driver likely tried — and failed — to apply the brakes as the SUV reached 100 mph while careening down a steep hill, blowing through an intersection and crashing into a ravine, the agency said.
"Seventeen young people made the smart, safe decision to arrange for sober transportation when celebrating," NTSB board member Michael Graham said at a hearing earlier Tuesday, according to The Associated Press. "They put their trust and safety into a system designed to protect them, and it failed."
Prestige's operator, Nauman Hussain, has pleaded not guilty to 20 charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. His trial had been scheduled to begin in May, but it was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the AP.
A lawyer representing Hussain did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The NTSB also said the state Transportation Department knew that Prestige had multiple "out of service" violations and was not allowed to operate. Nor was the SUV properly registered with the state Motor Vehicles Department, which allowed the company to "circumvent" state safety regulations and rigorous inspection requirements, the agency said.
"Knowing this tragedy could have been prevented on numerous occasions, by those who are entrusted to protect us, makes this crash even more heartbreaking," NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
A joint statement from the departments of Transportation and Motor Vehicles said regulators had "exercised full authority granted to us under the law and ordered that vehicle off the road multiple times, but as NTSB's own reports on this crash reaffirm, Prestige repeatedly violated New York State law and was never authorized at any time to operate for-hire commercial passenger vehicle service in the State."
The statement said New York has since enacted some of the toughest laws overseeing commercial vehicle safety in the country.