Lawyer defends truck firm in Amtrak crash
RENO – A lawyer for the Nevada trucking company whose tractor-trailer slammed into an Amtrak train, killing six people, defended the company’s safety record Thursday and said it was not at fault in two previous accidents cited in state safety records.
John Davis Trucking Co. has been cooperating with local, state and federal investigators and is as anxious as anyone to learn why the driver who died in the June 24 crash ignored flashing lights and crossing gates before skidding the length of a football field into the side of the train, Steven Jaffe of Las Vegas said.
But he said four negligence lawsuits filed against the Battle Mountain company – combined with the ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board – has kept the brothers who own the family-run business from sharing information that would help shed more light on the tragedy.
“There’s a lot more than meets the eye,” Jaffe told The Associated Press. “I think when it all comes down to it, the public is going to see a very different John Davis Trucking than was originally put out there.
“I believe the evidence will show their conduct was defensible in all of this,” he said. “I have a great deal of trust in the legal system, and if some day we go in front of a jury, I’m confident it will give us the chance to say that we did everything right.”
Federal records reviewed by the AP show the state Department of Public Safety cited the company for 16 vehicle maintenance violations over the past two years and noted it had been involved in two crashes during that period, including one in February 2010 that injured a person in Washoe County.
The records do not indicate who was at fault in those wrecks, but Jaffe said Thursday it wasn’t John Davis Trucking.
“I can assure you in the two other incidents, John Davis Trucking did nothing wrong,” he said.
One involved a pickup truck that made an illegal lane change in front of the John Davis truck, “cut it off and caused the accident,” Jaffe said. In the other case, “there was nothing wrong with the truck, it was maintained properly.”
“It was simply an accident that was not the company’s fault,” he said, declining to provide more detail.
The 16 maintenance violations ranged from oil leaks to inoperative lamps, but one involving a bad tire was serious enough for the vehicle to be ordered off the road because some threads were exposed, state records show.
Jaffe said the tire had failed on the road minutes earlier, not worn down to an unsafe condition. He said the tire tread separated and the driver was looking for a place to pull over on the narrow shoulder when a state trooper stopped him and told him he couldn’t go on without a repair.
“It wasn’t a situation where the tire was allowed to wear down to where it was bald,” Jaffe said. “It was a tread separation and he was trying to find a place where he wouldn’t be blocking the road.”
The four lawsuits have been filed against the company on behalf of a Nebraska woman and her granddaughter who were among the five people killed on the train, two Amtrak attendants who were among about 20 people injured, and Amtrak itself. Among other things, they claim company was negligent by failing to properly hire and train the driver, Lawrence Valli, 43, Winnemucca.
Valli had been driving for John Davis for only about six months. Jaffe said he wasn’t sure if the company was aware that state records show he had gotten three speeding tickets in California over the last four years and was arrested in Nevada in 2007 for skipping a court date after letting his vehicle registration expire.
But he said the company hired an “outside vendor” he declined to identify to do a “full background investigation on Mr. Valli as well as other drivers.”
“Certain things have been reported in the press that did not show up on the background check. We are in the process of investigating whether they are true or maybe there was a person of a similar name. We don’t know,” he said. “When they hire people, they can only go on what information is provided.”
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said Thursday the agency had no information to release about the investigation and did not expect to until next week.