By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The trucking firm sued by Amtrak after one of its big-rigs slammed into a train last week, killing six people, is a "cleanly run company" that would vigorously defend itself in court, an attorney said on Friday.
Steven Jaffe said the John Davis Trucking Company was surprised that Amtrak had filed its lawsuit so soon after the fiery crash.
Jaffe also said he saw no evidence the firm had employed an incompetent, unqualified driver as the passenger rail service claims in court papers.
"Based on what we know at this point I have very little concern that the John Davis Trucking Company employed an incompetent driver. That just did not happen," Jaffe, who is based in Las Vegas, told Reuters in an interview.
"This is a very very cleanly run company," he said. "If you look at records through the federal authorities they are actually a very highly ranked trucking company."
National Transportation Safety Board investigators are trying determine why driver Lawrence Valli ignored or failed to see signs, flashing lights and closed rail gates to collide with the train at a highway crossing.
Valli, 43, was killed in the accident on U.S. Route 95, about 70 miles east of Reno, along with the train's conductor and four other people. Dozens more were injured.
Amtrak, partly owned by the U.S. government, sued the John Davis Trucking Company in U.S. District Court in Reno on Thursday, saying it was negligent in hiring Valli.
The lawsuit came as NTSB investigators, who say it could take as long as a year to reach a formal conclusion.
The NTSB has said that the John Davis Trucking Company, which is based in Battle Mountain, Nevada, has been involved in 19 random roadside inspections since September of 2010 and was cited seven times for safety violations.
The tractor-trailer rig involved in last Friday's crash was not cited during that time.
Amtrak has declined to comment on its lawsuit, saying that the court documents speak for themselves.
"Naturally we're upset about the fact that Amtrak filed the suit so quickly, before anybody can even determine so many of the details," Jaffe said. "The NTSB has obviously acted on it's authority and secured quite a bit of evidence in this case. There are so many issues that still need to be determined."
The company, which employs 200 people, "intends to vigorously defend it's actions and conduct," he said.
"John Davis Trucking is very sincere when it says it intends to cooperate with authorities," he said. "It has and it will because we want to know exactly how this happened as well. There are a lot of things about this accident that make absolutely no sense to us at this point."
The California Zephyr was en route to Emeryville, California from Chicago with nearly 200 passengers and 14 crew members on board when it was hit by Valli's gravel-hauler.
An Amtrak train attendant who according to court papers suffered "severe and permanent injuries" in the collision has also sued the trucking company.