Amtrak sues Nevada truck company over fatal crash


RENO -- Following the lead of an injured onboard attendant, Amtrak is suing a Nevada trucking company for at least $10 million for negligence in the hiring and training of a driver who slammed a tractor-trailer into the side of a passenger train last week, killing six.

Lawyers for the National Railroad Passenger Corp. filed the lawsuit in Reno's U.S. District Court late Wednesday against John Davis Trucking Co. of Battle Mountain.

Truck driver Lawrence Valli, an Amtrak conductor and four others on the California-bound train died in Friday's crash at a crossing in the high desert about 70 miles east of Reno. About 20 people were injured.

Amtrak officials also confirmed Thursday that there was an accident involving a truck at the same rail crossing in September. But they said the truck only struck the crossing's warning equipment -- not the passing train itself -- so the incident did not need to be reported to federal safety administrators.

The new lawsuit said John Davis Trucking is liable for at least $10 million in damages suffered by Amtrak because it failed to properly train "or failed to train altogether" the driver before he crashed into the train, even as the crossing gates and flashing warning lights showed it was approaching.

Valli, 43, of Winnemucca, had been driving for John Davis for only about six months. Records show he had been ticketed three times for speeding 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.

Amtrak's lawsuit alleges the company "negligently hired Valli and diligently entrusted the vehicle to Valli, who it knew or should have known was incompetent and/or unqualified to operate the Peterbilt tractor trailer combination."

Company officials have had no comment on the accident or related legal matters since Tuesday. A Chicago-based Amtrak attendant hurt in the crash filed a negligence suit in state district court in Washoe County on Tuesday against Valli and the trucking company.

Alexandra Curtis, of Evanston, Ill., says in that lawsuit that both are responsible for the fatalities she says Valli caused when he "carelessly failed to heed railroad warning signs" before crashing into the westbound California Zephyr, which was headed from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay area.

A judge handling that case issued an order Wednesday prohibiting the destruction or disposal of any evidence tied to the crash on U.S. Highway 95 about three miles south of Interstate 80 and 30 miles north of Fallon.

Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board were expected to remain on the scene into next week. NTSB member Earl Weener told reporters over the weekend that the train's engineer and the drivers of a pair of trucks behind Valli saw the crossing equipment operating properly as they approached the crossing.

Tire marks on the road show he hit the brakes about 320 feet from the crossing before skidding the length of a football field into the train that was traveling about 78 mph, the NTSB said.

Officials for John Davis Trucking said in a statement Tuesday that they were cooperating with the NTSB investigation and also wanted to determine the cause of the crash. They have not responded to telephone calls or emails from AP seeking comment on the lawsuit or judge's order Wednesday or Amtrak's lawsuit filed Thursday.

The Reno Gazette-Journal first reported in Thursday's editions that a 2005 Kenworth commercial truck driven by David Leroy Fyfe, 56, Shelley, Idaho, stopped just short of hitting an Amtrak train at the U.S. 95 crossing on Sept. 14, 2010. No one was hurt, but the Nevada Highway Patrol cited Fyfe for failure to use due care.

The patrol said he steered to the right and struck a section of guardrail and then hit one of the large railroad sign towers. Debris scattered from the sign tower and the crossing guard bar and struck three of the passing train cars.

Jack Rice, an Amtrak engineer piloting the train heading west at 7 a.m. that day, said it was one of four or five close calls he experiences every year at that crossing.

"It's one of the bad ones," he told the newspaper.

Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said Thursday that the truck struck the crossing equipment, which fell into the train tracks and was later hit by the train. Because the train didn't strike the vehicle itself, it was not required to be reported to the Federal Railroad Administration, he said.

"There was some damage, but the train continued on and the damage did not reach the monetary threshold in which it would have required reporting to FRA," he told the AP.

Kulm said the signal mast scratched up some of the train cars. He did not have financial estimate for the damage but the railroad administration confirmed the reporting threshold at that time was $9,600.

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Burke reported from San Francisco.

 

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