RENO, Nev. — Lawyers defending a Nevada trucking firm being sued for negligence in a fiery 2011 crash with an Amtrak train told jurors Tuesday that Union Pacific Railroad officials manipulated or destroyed evidence that would have proved a malfunctioning crossing gate and signal lights were responsible for the deaths of the truck driver and five people on board the California Zephyr.
But an attorney representing Amtrak in its lawsuit seeking $11 million from John Davis Trucking said in his opening statement that evidence presented during the six-week federal trial will show the truck driver, Larry Valli, ignored flashing lights, a functioning gate and repeated whistle blasts before slamming into the train at a rural highway crossing 70 miles east of Reno.
“It was almost like a rocket hitting, blew up and burned,” said Amtrak lawyer Mark Landman, who also is aiding in representation of Union Pacific.
“We will never know what Mr. Valli was doing. One thing we know he was not doing was looking where he was going,” he said before showing the jury an 82-second video clip from a camera mounted on the locomotive that shows the crossing gate lowered in its proper place as the train passed.
The Amtrak engineer will testify he saw the gate in place, and a Union Pacific maintenance worker at the scene at the time concurred, Landman said.
Lawyers for the Battle Mountain-based trucking firm — which has filed a countersuit against Union Pacific — questioned the video’s authenticity.
They also said they will present evidence that the day after the crash, Union Pacific officials removed data cards from a housing unit that controlled the crossing gate after being told not to by the National Transportation Safety Board.
They said photos taken after the crash show the gate arm was replaced despite Union Pacific’s claims to the contrary and that minor damage on it occurred in a separate incident months earlier. They said they were prevented from inspecting the gate arm —which since has disappeared — “because it didn’t have the damage they needed to support the claim the gate arm wasn’t working.”
“They moved evidence. They did not preserve the scene even though they knew NTSB required them to do so,” attorney Steve Jaffe said. “It was all to hide the fact the gates and the lights were not functioning properly, and that’s why this accident happened.”
The truck’s “black box” data recorder was too badly damaged to show the truck’s speed or the brake status at the time of the crash.
However, the NTSB concluded in December 2012 that the wreck most likely was caused by an inattentive trucker with a history of speeding violations driving a tractor-trailer with faulty brakes.
Valli apparently didn’t notice the train because he was fatigued and suffering from ankle pain, and he possibly could have been checking messages on his cellphone, agency investigators said. But the panel decided there was too little evidence of any of those things to include in the formal probable cause finding.
Board members said they ruled out malfunctioning safety equipment because time-lapsed photography showed the gate fully extended four seconds before the crash. They said monitoring equipment also indicated the lights were flashing and the gate in place 18 seconds before the collision when the truck was still 900 feet away.
George Kirklin, another lawyer for John Davis Trucking, focused Tuesday on the “mystery of the gate arm” with a “troubling history.” Defense witnesses suspect the gate was not in its proper position but rather came down on the truck as it passed through, explaining its relatively minor damage, he said.
“The only two people who say the gate was down are both railroad employees,” he said.