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Spota: Report lists factors in deadly Cutchogue limo crash

Drivers and limousine passengers remain vulnerable to the kind of crash that killed four young women last year in Cutchogue, according to a special grand jury report released by Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. The report offers possible solutions, including regulation and redesigning the intersection.  (Credit: News 12 Long Island; Stringer News Service)

Poor limousine construction and regulation, a badly designed traffic light and increased traffic on the North Fork contributed to the crash that killed four young women last year in Cutchogue, according to a special grand jury report released Tuesday.

That report says motorists and limo passengers remain vulnerable until changes are made to a variety of laws, regulations, licensing rules — and the traffic light.

The special grand jury, empaneled after the crash, investigated aspects that contributed to the deaths for more than a year. The 156-page report calls for tougher regulation of limousine construction, prohibiting limos from making U-turns, stricter licensing for limo drivers and redesigning the intersection where the crash happened, on county Route 48 at Depot Lane.

Until those changes are made, there will be a “fine line between a limo and a hearse,” Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said at a news conference while releasing the report.

“The grand jury report is important to us,” Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said. “The problem is not going away.”

The July 18, 2015, crash killed Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; and Lauren Baruch, 24, and Brittney Schulman, 23, both of Smithtown. Four other women were injured. Criminally negligent homicide charges against the limo driver, Carlos Pino, 59, of Old Bethpage, were dismissed earlier this year after state Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho found that the same grand jury was improperly instructed on the law by Spota’s office. Spota said his office is appealing that decision.

The crash took place after the limo, hired by the women for a winery tour, attempted to make a U-turn on Route 48 at Depot Lane. Pino’s turn put him in front of a pickup driven by Steven Romeo, 56, of Southold. He is charged with driving while intoxicated, but Spota has said he was blameless for the crash.

“The deaths and injuries were entirely preventable, caused by driver failure, improper limousine construction, and inadequate regulatory oversight,” the report says.

According to the report, Baruch’s mother, Felicia Baruch, told Pino when he picked up the women: “You see these eight beautiful babies? The way I’m leaving them with you, I want them back.”

The women’s last stop that day was at Vineyard 48, just west of Depot Lane. “A winery security guard thanked the young women for coming, gave them all high-fives, and told them to get home safe,” the report said.

Pino drove the limo to Depot Lane, where there was then a flashing yellow light, and prepared to make a legal U-turn. His view of oncoming traffic, however, was blocked by cars in the opposite turning lane, the grand jury found. He made the turn anyway across all lanes and cut in front of Romeo, whose truck T-boned the limo on the right side.

Because all limos have minimal side anti-intrusion structures, the report said, the front of the truck pushed the right side of the limo all the way through to the left side, pinning and crushing two women sitting on a bench seat on the left side of the limo.

“First responders found several of the conscious survivors screaming for their mothers,” the report said. One Southold Town detective said it was the worst scene he had ever worked, the report said.

The report said the difference in the damage between the two vehicles was stark. The air bag in the pickup did not deploy and its windshield did not break. The limo, on the other hand, was almost bent in half.

Spota said there were several problems with the anti-intrusion bar — which is supposed to protect passengers during impacts — in this limo, built by Royale Limousine of Haverhill, Massachusetts.

“Regulation regarding the placement of the intrusion bar is absolutely nonexistent,” Spota said, holding what was left of the bar. “It’s a $50 tubular bar. This is all that stood between a pickup truck and eight women.”

A forensic examiner who looked at the limo in this crash found that although the side beam showed minimal damage, it tore free from the rear door pillar, greatly reducing the protection it could offer, the report said. The examiner found the welds holding the beam to the door pillars to be “extremely poor,” the report said.

Spota said the bar was so low — 21 inches from the ground — that Romeo’s pickup went over it instead of into it.

“The pickup truck crushed the limousine as if it were an aluminum can,” Spota said.

Attempts to reach Royale Limousine for comment on the report Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The report looked at how Lincoln Town Cars were converted into the type of limo in this crash. The cars are literally sawed in half and the stretch section is inserted in the middle, and then the whole vehicle is welded together. One limo constructor told grand jurors that the steel beams found in the doors of most modern cars are not always as strong in limos because the added weight would make the limos too heavy to meet federal rules for such cars.

A heavier, stronger structure means limo operators can’t carry as many passengers and make more money, Spota said.

The intersection where the crash happened also came in for some criticism in the report. Traffic control on the North Fork has not kept up with the explosion in recent years of tourists, winery visitors, increased agriculture and increased traffic passing through the area to and from the Orient Point ferry to Connecticut.

The flashing yellow light had been seen as inadequate by Southold Town and Suffolk County officials even before the crash. Although making U-turns is legal at Depot Lane, limo and bus drivers often became stuck and blocked traffic on Route 48 — a divided highway — during the turn.

Since the crash, a traffic light has replaced the flashing yellow light, but the grand jury report said that solution may have made the problem even worse. Although there are turning lanes there from Route 48 in both directions, the light has no green arrow to allow motorists to make a protected turn. All turns are still made in front of oncoming traffic.

As a result, limos still make their wide, ungainly U-turns at that intersection, the report said. It’s just as dangerous as before, and just as legal, the report said. Spota said the county has refused to modify that and other lights with green arrows for turning vehicles.

Gil Anderson, the county’s Department of Public Works commissioner, said in a statement he could not respond until he’s read the grand jury report.

The grand jury also called on the State Legislature to ban all U-turns by limos everywhere in the state and to increase the licensing requirements for limo drivers.

Right now, Spota said, any driver can get a limo license just by paying a fee. He said bus drivers, on the other hand, require training, drug tests, reviews of medical records and regular road testing to keep their licenses. Limo drivers should be held to the same standard, he said.

The victims’ families, who have filed civil suits in the case, hope the grand jury report as well as their legal action prevent further heartache, said John Juliano, attorney for the Schulman family.

“This lawsuit is about not allowing this to happen again,” he said. He hopes that the information in the grand jury report will benefit the families in the suit.

The grand jury made numerous recommendations, including:

  • Redesigning intersections on Route 48 to prevent left turns in front of high-speed, oncoming traffic.
  • Making it illegal for limos and buses to make U-turns in Southold, Suffolk County and all of New York state.
  • Stricter licensing requirements for limo drivers, similar to that of bus drivers.
  • Better regulation of limo construction by New York State.
  • Beefing up the Suffolk Taxi and Limousine Commission to enable it to inspect limos more thoroughly.
  • Making it easier to hold limo drivers criminally and civilly liable for their actions behind the wheel.

SOURCE: Suffolk County District Attorney

No one is criminally liable for the deaths and injuries from the July 18, 2015, limo crash, authorities have said.

Limo driver Carlos Pino, 59, of Old Bethpage, had been charged with criminally negligent homicide and misdemeanor assault, but state Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho dismissed the indictment, ruling his actions did not meet the legal standard for those charges. Prosecutors are appealing.

Pickup driver Steven Romeo, 56, of Southold, who hit the turning limo, remains charged with driving while intoxicated. Prosecutors say he could not have avoided the crash.

— Andrew Smith

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