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September 21, 2014

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Trucking company claims Union Pacific official altered evidence in deadly Amtrak crash in Northern Nevada

Lawyers for the trucking company involved in the 2011 tractor trailer crash into an Amtrak train filed new documents saying they have new evidence supporting their claim that Union Pacific Railroad altered or destroyed evidence to make it look like the truck driver was at fault, not the rail companies.

John Davis Trucking Co., lawyers also took their claims one step further this time by telling state and federal judges that the alleged evidence tampering warrants a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors into whether Union Pacific obstructed a federal investigation.

In question, they said, is whether Ken Hunt, UP’s senior ranking official, ignored a National Transportation Safety Board directive to secure and preserve the crash site, 70 miles east of Reno, until they arrived to investigate. Instead, they said Hunt allowed evidence to get changed or otherwise spoiled.

The new court documents ask for more time to question Hunt about what he did and what he told others to do. The new filings prompted U.S. Magistrate Judge Valerie Cooke to postpone a hearing set for today until March 21.

Aaron Hunt, a Union Pacific spokesman, said the company denies the claims. Messages sent to Amtrak were not immediately returned.

“We plan to vigorously defend ourselves against the claim that Union Pacific tampered with evidence or withheld information related to the investigation of this incident,” Aaron Hunt said in an email late Friday.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr was traveling from Chicago to California on June 24, 2011, when a 150-foot-long Peterbilt tractor-trailer slammed into the train at a crossing on U.S. 95. The impact killed five people on board and truck driver Lawrence Valli. Fifteen people were injured.

An NTSB report released in December 2012 blamed the crash on Valli’s “delayed breaking” as he approached the rail crossing. Officials also called Valli an “inattentive” driver and his brakes were poorly maintained.

John Davis company claims the rail crossing warning gates were not working and did not warn Valli of the approaching train.

The company, Amtrak and Union Pacific have competing lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Reno and about 20 civil claims filed by victims or their families were consolidated into one case in Washoe District Court.

Steve Jaffe, a John Davis lawyer, has argued in the federal case that Union Pacific altered evidence to make it look like the crossing gate had dropped at the appropriate time, but on Feb. 28 he filed an emergency motion saying recent interviews with several UP workers revealed that Ken Hunt might have been responsible for changing some evidence and for ignoring the NTSB mandate.

It was clear, Jaffe said in the motion, that the NTSB let Hunt know that they were on their way to investigate the crash, but that Hunt allegedly withheld that information for up to six hours.

“This effectively permitted UP to conduct its own self-serving investigation” and the alleged tampering of critical evidence — specifically the gate arm, the motion said.

“All evidence demonstrates that Union Pacific engaged in a pattern of conduct ostensibly to sanitize the accident scene in an attempt to exonerate itself and Amtrak prior to the NTSB’s arrival, despite knowing that the NTSB informed them that they were going to assume control of the investigation, all under the watchful eye of Ken Hunt, UP’s senior ranking official at the site,” the motion said.

John Davis lawyers said they were afraid that Hunt would show up for his deposition with a lawyer and would seek Fifth Amendment protections against incriminating himself. They told the judge that they wanted a 48-hour head’s up if that was the case.

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