An Uber driver at the wheel when a Cold Spring Harbor teen fell from the vehicle's roof while “car surfing” in September pleaded guilty Thursday to second-degree manslaughter, Suffolk prosecutors said.
Danyal Cheema, 24, of Huntington Station, faces at least 10 months in prison when he is sentenced at a later date by acting state Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho.
“This is a tragic incident that could have been avoided had the defendant not conducted himself in such a reckless manner,” Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini said in a statement.
Cheema was working as an Uber driver on Sept. 23 when he picked up Ryan Mullen, 15, of Cold Spring Harbor, and two other teenagers in his Toyota Highlander on Cove Road in Huntington.
The passengers asked Cheema for permission to “car surf,” or ride on the roof of the vehicle as it was moving, and offered him $70 cash. The passengers ultimately paid Cheema $40 and he allowed them to climb onto the roof of the vehicle while at an intersection, prosecutors said.
Mullen, a student at St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, fell off the vehicle and struck his head on the roadway as Cheema drove on Cove Road.
Cheema drove the three teens to their destination in Huntington, and Mullen later died of his injuries in his sleep that night, prosecutors said.
“This is a sad day for both families,” said Cheema’s attorney, Christopher Renfroe of Queens. “My client is remorseful about what happened. My condolences go out to the family, and I know my client feels the same way.”
Matthew and Janice Mullen, Ryan Mullen's parents, issued a statement through their attorney William Burdo of Mineola that said their family welcomes Cheema's guilty plea.
"Despite our deep pain, we appreciate Mr. Cheema accepting responsibility for his actions," the Mullens said. "Although he made a number of extremely poor and reckless decisions that night, we know that he did not set out to hurt Ryan. He too will have to carry the burden of Ryan’s death with him for the rest of his life. Our thoughts go out to him and his family as well."
The Mullens said they will continue to work to change laws governing the ride-sharing industry so that Uber and similar companies will properly safeguard their passengers.
"We will also be continuing our work to grow 'Strive For Five,' the foundation we established to honor Ryan’s memory. Ryan loved to compete and was an avid soccer player. The mission of 'Strive For Five' is to provide educational and athletic opportunities for students in Ryan’s memory. We hope to continue to expand the reach of “Strive for Five” to impact as many young lives as possible," the statement said.