Civil Suit Compels Man Who Killed Ally Liao to Stop Driving for 5 Years

The corner where Allison Liao was killed was named in her honor. Photo: Families for Safe Streets
The corner where a driver failed to yield and killed Allison Liao was named for her. Photo: Families for Safe Streets

A bereaved family has done what NYPD, city district attorneys, and the New York State DMV usually fail to do: impose meaningful sanctions against a reckless driver, who in this case took the life of 3-year-old Allison Liao.

Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh failed to yield the right of way when he struck Allison as she walked hand in hand with her grandmother across Main Street in Flushing on October 6, 2013. The DMV found Abu-Zayedeh at fault for the crash, but revoked his license for just 30 days.

Allison Liao
Allison Liao

NYPD summonsed Abu-Zayedeh for failure to yield and careless driving, but filed no criminal charges. The DMV later threw out the tickets. The chief vehicular crimes prosecutor for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, Charles A. Testagrossa, wrote off the crash as a blameless “accident,” and said Abu-Zayedeh was proceeding with a green light. In stories that are still online in their original form, the press falsely reported that Allison “broke free” from her grandmother, implying the victims were at fault.

As is common when drivers injure and kill people in NYC, civil court was the victims’ only available venue to hold the motorist accountable. This month, Allison’s parents, Amy Tam and Hsi-Pei Liao, settled a suit with Abu-Zayedeh. Under the terms of the settlement, Abu-Zayedeh surrendered 75 percent of his net worth, acknowledged complete responsibility for the crash, and signed a notarized agreement to not drive or apply for a license for five years [PDF].

Attorney Steve Vaccaro, who represented the Liaos, told Streetsblog that extended loss of driving privileges and fines that are calculated as a percentage of the driver’s assets are the norm in other countries. “What we’ve attempted to do in this settlement is to bring that much more serious approach toward accountability for reckless driving to the United States in the context of this civil suit,” Vaccaro said.

“It reflects a comprehensive approach toward justice that victims’ families increasingly are taking in these types of cases, and has the potential to change the way drivers regard the risks of reckless driving,” said Vaccaro, who noted that an insurance settlement is the standard civil penalty for a serious crash. “If there are risks like having to make a public apology, having to forgo driving for years, and now with the Right of Way Law, which very much was passed in the wake of and because of Ally Liao’s death, criminal penalties, perhaps drivers will start to get the message about their awesome responsibility to drive safely.”

As members of Families for Safe Streets, Amy Tam and Hsi-Pei Liao have worked with other victims to draw attention to New York City’s reckless driving epidemic, and to advocate for legislative reforms intended to make streets safer.

“It’s been an honor to represent the Liao family,” Vaccaro said. “They should be regarded as heroes by all parents and all New Yorkers for their sacrifice and stance against traffic violence. This settlement, which I consider unprecedented, is due to their perseverance and willingness to make a comprehensive notion of justice their overriding goal.”

  • Glenn

    Bravo to Steve and Liao family for their tenacity on seeing this through to completion and a public settlement that will hopefully lead to real change in behaviors. Really great work that deserves wide recognition. Alison will live in on the lives saved by their victory.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    well Done !

  • Andy S

    Wow. I’m astounded. Nice work, Mr. Vaccaro.

  • Tyson White

    I’m really impressed by the girl’s parents being so motivated to effect change. Most families just accept it and move on, letting such things happen again and again without much public backlash. I saw her dad on TV. He’s smart and well-spoken, and makes the perfect spokesperson for Families for Safe Streets. Bravo!

  • Joe R.

    75% of his net worth could easily be zero. Most cab drivers live paycheck to paycheck.

    Had it been me, I would have asked for him to not drive permanently as a condition of his settlement.

    That said, I hope this sets a precedent for future cases where agreeing not to drive for an extended period, better yet permanently, becomes the norm.

  • Mark Walker

    This is excellent news and compliments to the Liao family and Steve. In the best of all possible worlds, the state would have confiscated his license and vehicle permanently. But the perfect is the enemy of the good, and in the world we live in right now, this is a huge precedent-setting step forward. Again, great work.

  • Joe R.

    Confiscating your license permanently should be standard operating procedure whenever you kill or seriously injure someone (unless it can be proven you’re not at fault). It should also be the rule for drunken or drugged driving. Finally, doctors or pharmacies should be required to inform the DMV when you’re on medication which can either impair your driving, or if not taken impair your driving (i.e. epilepsy medications). In both cases your license would be suspended until the DMV was informed that you no longer need those medications. To give these rules some teeth, cars should automatically be forfeit if you’re driving with a suspended or revoked license.

  • Matthias

    Yes. When there is a police shooting, the officer is relieved of his/her gun until an investigation has been completed. The same should happen with motor vehicles when someone is killed by one.

  • Kevin Love

    Meanwhile, in the rest of the world…

    We don’t have to go far. Just across the New York/Ontario border. Where doctors are required by law to report to the government anyone who is unfit to drive. See:

    http://www.mto.gov.on.ca/english/safety/medically-unfit-driver-physicians.shtml

    This is also where killer car drivers are denied bail before their trial:

    http://www.saultstar.com/2013/09/10/suspect-in-fatality-denied-bail

  • Kevin Love

    Suppose he refuses? In which case, the best you could get from a judge is 100% of his net worth.

  • Komanoff

    Steve V is absolutely right that the settlement he and the Liao family extracted from the driver, if replicated across the city, state and nation, “has the potential to change the way drivers regard the risks of reckless driving.” It is truly a landmark event.

    Knowing Steve and also Ally’s parents Amy and H.P., I think they would agree that their heroic work here was given even greater civic and legal meaning through the work of the city’s livable streets movement. All of us — Families for Safe Streets; the founders, funders and workers of Streetsblog; and everyone who has organized and attended rallies, written letters, and otherwise activated against traffic violence and official indifference — should take heart in what we’ve accomplished through this milestone settlement.

  • Joe R.

    That’s true of course. Maybe to make the odds a little more in my favor that the defendant would opt for not driving, I’d appeal to their greed. I’d offer an alternative of no fine but not driving permanently, or a fine of 75% of net worth. Of course if they agree to not drive, but do so anyway, then I go after them for the fine. My educated guess is he agreed to both because he’s probably worth close to nothing. I’d be surprised here if the fine amounts to more than four figures. If he’s like a lot of other people, he likely has only a few hundred or thousand in a savings account. Any equity in property he may own is likely already tapped. Maybe his car is worth more than what he owes on it. And maybe he has a few trinkets made of gold or silver. If he had substantial assets, he could have used those as leverage. Since he probably doesn’t, I guess it looks good for him giving 75% of his assets, even if that amounts to chicken feed. He probably figures he’ll be able to earn it back in weeks or months.

  • Andrew

    Confiscating your license permanently should be standard operating procedure whenever you kill or seriously injure someone (unless it can be proven you’re not at fault).

    Not as punishment, but simply because you’ve demonstrated that you are not competent to operate a motor vehicle.

    What rubs me the wrong way about this outcome is that this man’s punishment is the loss of his driving privilege. In a city where car owners are in the minority, this man’s punishment is to have to live like an average New Yorker.

    That’s no punishment. Drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks should land in jail – certainly once their blatant carelessness costs lives.

    This is better than nothing, I suppose, but I find it disappointing. Maybe it’s the best that could have been expected, but if there’s a breakthrough here, I’m afraid I’m not seeing it.

  • Joe R.

    I agree. I should have qualified this with in addition to fines or jail time. At least we can take solace in knowing he won’t kill anyone else while driving, for five years anyway. I wish it would have been for life. That still won’t be real punishment in NYC as you said, but at least we would know he’ll never kill another person with a motor vehicle.

  • Kevin Love

    Perhaps this is an inadvertent error, but this article is not about fines or any other punishment.

    It is about a civil court settlement. About settling the lawsuit for wrongful death. Usually these settlements are purely about paying money as compensation for the loss.

    For adults, the compensation is usually sought by spouses and minor children for things like lost income or child care expenses due to the death.

    In this case, my wild guess is that Allison’s parents argued something along the lines of: “Allison would have taken care of us in our old age. Now we have to hire professionals to do that. So we ask for compensation for this cost.”

  • Joe R.

    I read up on civil court judgements today. It turns out they do have some teeth. Obviously if the killer is flat broke, and not working, you can’t get blood out of stone. However, you can garnish wages or benefit checks for a civil judgement. You can also attach property. I don’t think you can force the person to sell the property if its their primary residence, but you might be able to force them to take as much of a loan against as they can afford to pay in order to partially or entirely satisfy the judgement.

    This is probably why he agreed to a voluntary settlement. This case is as close to a slam-dunk as you’ll ever get. Had it gone to court, he likely would have lost, then been on the hook for perhaps 6 or 7 figures. He certainly couldn’t pay it all, but he likely would have had enough taken out of his wages or benefits for the rest of his life to seriously lower his standard of living. Maybe faced with this, he figured better to surrender 75% of my (likely meager) assets now, agree to not drive for 5 years, in return for knowing the matter is done.

    Now if he had been wealthy, I’m not sure how much leverage there would be to get him to voluntarily agree not to drive. He might have said go ahead in court. Even if I lose, it’s small potatoes to me. This is one reason why losing your license permanently in a situation like this should be standard, before you even go to civil or criminal court.

  • Lawsuits, also known as justice for the wealthy. Even if you can manage to file one without it costing too much, most still don’t have the time. Its terrible when the police and government are not providing justice…..

  • Thank you to the Liao family and to Steve Vaccaro for their courage and dogged pursuit of justice. Anyone who sets foot to pavement in this city owes you a huge amount of gratitude.

    I find it morally repugnant that after all this time — indeed, after a *video* showing what actually happened and now after the driver’s own admission of responsibility — the Daily News has not corrected their original version of the story. Anyone with a shred of decency would have fixed that a long time ago.

  • BBnet3000

    Not corrected, memory holed. This is the worst thing they could have done.

  • Matthias

    Wow. That is revealing. Are they hoping no one will notice? A publication with any journalistic standards would have issued a formal retraction.

  • ahwr

    debtor’s prison?

    http://nypost.com/2015/10/30/driver-who-mowed-down-toddler-must-stay-off-road-pay-family-bulk-of-net-worth/

    The family has a lien against his condo and can foreclose if he fails to comply with settlement terms.

    And if he tries to drive or apply for a license before late 2020 and gets caught he has to pay another $100k. Sounds like he has (had?) a decent amount of money.

  • Joe R.

    He might be worth 5, or perhaps even low 6 figures. If he were worth much more than that he wouldn’t be driving a cab.

    It’s common to put a lien on property in cases like this to compel the defendant to adhere to the terms. He can’t be forced to sell his primary residence to pay the judgement, nor would it be counted towards his net worth, but it can function as collateral. Of course, if he has any other property that is counted. Same with bank accounts, vehicles, basically anything he owns with a non-trivial value. I’m not sure if IRAs or other retirement accounts are counted. I doubt it, but I could be wrong.

    It probably makes sense if anyone has a substantial net worth, and it’s feasible they could be sued, to have some sort of asset protection insurance.

  • Joe Enoch

    There is no justice when it comes to reckless driving, but this brand of accountability is the sort of thing that can change driving habits.

  • neroden

    YES.

    So apparently we can actually get reckless drivers to *stop driving* using civil suits? That’s kind of awesome and it needs to be done ROUTINELY.

    Go Steve Vaccaro for figuring this out — it’s a public service! Thanks for doing the public service which our “governments” are too often refusing to do.

  • neroden

    Lawsuits predate the police and predate DAs. Back in Rennaissance Britain, you weren’t gonna get anything from the King’s government, and lawsuits were your only option.

    But back then you could privately file CRIMINAL lawsuits too.

  • neroden

    I’m a practical man and I don’t really care about punishment — but dammit I want to *stop the reckless drivers from killing again*.

    Punishment can be satisfying… but it isn’t necessary *if* you can prevent the violent behavior from happening again. What’s important is stopping it.

    The same dynamic is true with brutal, killer cops. They should be punished, but what’s really important is that they (a) get fired from their jobs and (b) never hold any police or security or similar job again. As long as they’re permanently blacklisted from the position of power which they abused, it’s not that important whether they’re actually punished.

  • neroden

    Unfortunately, when a police officer commits assault, battery, and false arrest without using a gun, even when it’s caught on camera, they police officer is generally allowed to continue wandering the streets assaulting people. This leads to a corrupt culture of criminality among the police .

    The correct action is for any police officer who is credibly accused of assaulting someone to be suspended for the entire duration of the investigation (no work, not even desk work). The case should be required to be prosecuted, and unless the officer is actually exonerated, the officer should be fired. Failure to prosecute should result in firing too.

  • Yes, and since then, we realized that justice should be a more universal concept.

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