1st lawsuit filed over Amtrak train crash in NV

Published 5:56 pm Wednesday, June 29, 2011

An Amtrak train attendant filed the first lawsuit over a crash that injured her and killed at least six people in Nevada last week, as more details emerged Tuesday about the driving record of the trucker whose big rig plowed into the double-decker rail cars.

The suit was filed in Washoe County District Court in Nevada by Alexandra Curtis of Evanston, Ill., who is among about 20 people injured in the crash east of Reno on Friday. Her lawsuit alleges negligence on the part of truck driver Lawrence Valli, 43, and his employer, John Davis Trucking Co., saying that he ignored railroad crossing gates and warning signals.

“Quite simply, this driver should not have been behind the wheel of this truck,” said attorney Dan Kotin, of Chicago firm Corboy & Demetrio, which filed the suit.

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Investigators, who searched for more clues in wreckage strewn through the desert Tuesday, have not yet determined why Valli’s tractor-trailer hit the train, even as the crossing’s flashing lights warned the train was approaching.

Company owners did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Curtis is seeking in excess of $10,000 in general damages and an unspecified amount for medical costs from the accident after suffering severe and permanent injuries, the complaint states. She also has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the law firm.

Valli, who had been driving John Davis for only about six months, 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, records revealed.

California authorities cited Valli three times for speeding while driving a commercial vehicle over the posted speed limit, and also ticketed him for using a cell phone without a hands-free device, not wearing a seatbelt and carrying too long a load, according to California Department of Motor Vehicles records.

Nevada authorities earlier insisted that the three speeding tickets were for driving a school bus, but Tuesday Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman Tom Jacobs clarified that Valli was behind the wheel of a commercial vehicle.

Valli also was booked into the Washoe County Jail in January 2007 on a warrant alleging failure to appear, county sheriff’s spokesman Armando Avina said. The trucker faced the charge after being cited in September 2006 for having expired vehicle registration, said University of Nevada, Reno Police Commander Todd Renweck, whose agency requested the warrant, but prosecutors dropped the case the day after his arrest.

The Nevada Highway Patrol also released the name of another passenger who was killed — 34-year-old Cheuy Ong, of West Jordan, Utah. 

On Tuesday, about a dozen workers clad in orange vests picked through the blackened mix of sand and metal in a grim search that may lead them to more remains. Meanwhile, investigators met with the driver’s employer and reviewed his medical history, training and experience.

“We’re also trying to obtain as much information on the driver and his company as possible,” National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said. “Investigators will remain on the scene another five to seven days and we’ll issue a preliminary report on the accident in 30 days.”’

Weener has said Valli was going “at a considerable speed” in a 70-mph zone before the crash.

Valli’s employer describes itself as a family owned company that specializes in hauling ore from local mines, as well as moving gravel and sand.

“Please know that we recognize our moral and social obligation to find out how this accident happened, and we intend to cooperate with the authorities,” said a company statement issued Tuesday, expressing officials’ condolences and sympathies to those who lost their loved ones in the accident.

The highway was shut down for 30-minute intervals most of the day as state transportation officials assisted NTSB investigators with a series of tests on the crossing gates and flashing lights, and measuring a variety of distances from the crossing.

The two burned-out cars still sit within a few hundred yards of the site of the impact, where the high desert is dotted with sagebrush and mountain ridges are visible in the distance.

The narrow two-lane blacktop highway, with only about three feet of shoulder in most places, runs parallel to the railroad tracks, about 100 yards apart for several miles, approaching the crossing from the south.

Investigators also plan to examine footage shot by a video camera mounted in front of the locomotive. The video shows the big rig before the collision, and that the crossing gates and warning signals were clearly in operation, Weener said.

“It also shows the weather was clear and there was good visibility,” he said.

Federal investigators say it could take up to a year to determine the cause of the crash.

Trooper Chuck Allen said authorities would consider all factors as they investigated the cause of the accident, including fatigue, driver inattention, and drugs or alcohol. Toxicology and autopsy results are due within days.

Federal investigators, who located Valli’s cell phone in the rubble and will check it and call records to see if he might have been distracted, said the driver’s professional commercial driving record “is an area we will be taking a very close look at.”

Of the nine most seriously injured people aboard the train, one remained in serious condition and another in fair condition Tuesday at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno. Seven others have been discharged.