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At trial, California man whose legs were cut off by train can’t recall how he got on tracks

Sacramento Bee 10/15/2022 Sam Stanton, The Sacramento Bee
Joe Nevis of Marysville lost both of his legs after being hit by an Amtrak train last year. He is pictured in the office of his lawyer, Daniel Wilcoxen, in Sacramento on Wednesday. © Autumn Payne/apayne@sacbee.com/The Sacramento Bee/TNS Joe Nevis of Marysville lost both of his legs after being hit by an Amtrak train last year. He is pictured in the office of his lawyer, Daniel Wilcoxen, in Sacramento on Wednesday.

The Northern California man whose legs were sliced off by an Amtrak train after he fell asleep on railroad tracks Christmas Eve 2016 testified Friday in his $32 million lawsuit, but maintains that he can’t recall how he ended up there.

Joseph Nevis, 34, said the last thing he remembers is walking toward a bus stop near Yuba City, then waking up along the tracks hours later in the predawn darkness and realizing his legs were gone.

“I woke up and I was looking around,” Nevis said in federal court in Sacramento, where U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd is overseeing the trial against Amtrak, Marysville’s Rideout Hospital and medical personnel.

“I started to stand up and I couldn’t, and reached down and felt bones. I reached over and felt the train tracks. My phone was dead and I realized no one was coming to help me, and I rolled over a couple times away from the tracks. And I forced myself to go to sleep.”

Nevis said he woke up hours later and heard a passing motorcycle, and managed to wave his arms and to attract the rider, who called 911.

“At that point, my legs had already been pretty badly mangled,” Nevis said under questioning from his attorney, Raymond McElfish.

He said his pain was “off the scales, I couldn’t even put a number on it,” and that it wasn’t until an ambulance arrived that he was able to calm himself.

“As soon as I realized I was on the stretcher I released and realized I had been rescued,” Nevis said.

But, he said, he did not recall how he had gotten there and had no memory of a relapse of his drug or alcohol use, which he had been successfully fighting for months as he lived at the Buddy’s House rehabilitation center in Yuba City.

His last clear memory was finishing his work that day for a remodeling and construction outfit, where he spent Friday, Dec. 23, clearing leaves off the roof of an apartment complex to clear gutters during sporadic rain.

Then, he said, he got his $800 paycheck from his employer, cashed it and headed toward a bus stop.

His lawyer says Nevis was picked up on a sidewalk at 1:11 a.m. by Yuba City police, who determined he was “too drunk” to go to jail and took him to Rideout, where he arrived at 1:42 a.m.

He stayed at the hospital for 20 minutes, seeing a nurse and Dr. Hector Lopez, who checked him out, had him walk a straight line and agreed to discharge him without performing a blood-alcohol content test.

Testimony at trial says Nevis left before receiving his discharge papers, which typically would have included written instructions for how to proceed with further treatment.

McElfish has maintained the hospital and doctor violated policy by allowing Nevis to leave and by not notifying police once officials realized he was gone.

“He was incorrectly discharged,” Dr. Andrew Lawson, an emergency medicine expert hired by Nevis’ legal team, testified earlier. “You know he’s intoxicated.

“The national standard of care is you don’t send these people home. It’s a safety issue for all of us.”

Rideout attorney Bob Zimmerman pushed back at that claim on cross-examination, saying Nevis was checked out and given verbal instructions, and that the only thing missing was Nevis’ signature on the discharge papers.

Nevis’ testimony was the fullest account of his accident since a 2017 interview with The Sacramento Bee in which he also said he recalled very little about what happened.

After Nevis concluded questioning from his own attorney, Amtrak lawyer Jason Schaff started out gingerly on cross-examination by acknowledging the tragedy Nevis has endured.

“My sympathy for that,” Schaff said, then began asking if he could explain why he was on the tracks and whether he knew he was trespassing.

“I cannot,” Nevis said repeatedly.

Schaff asked if it was possible he had relapsed into drug use that night.

“Not to my knowledge,” Nevis said.

Nevis testified that after his mother was killed in an accident in 2008 he tried to cope by turning to heroin, methamphetamine, alcohol and marijuana for years.

“You’re just always chasing a high, it’s never good enough,” Nevis said.

But in early 2016 he checked into Buddy’s House and, after a couple of relapses, had been clean before the train incident, he said.

“I grabbed a hold of the program and wanted to change my life,” he said, noting that he wanted to learn to become a truck driver and had been studying a manual on driving until the accident.

Since then, he said, he has had to learn to cope with the loss of his legs, using a wheelchair he bought at a thrift store because it was all he could afford and battling pain, including phantom pains.

“I’m currently having them right now,” he said from the witness stand, where he was accompanied by his service dog, Charlie, a Labrador retriever.

“Emotionally, I have my up days and I have my down days,” Nevis said. “Today’s kind of an average day.”

McElfish is expected to wrap up his case next week, with lawyers for the defendants scheduled to begin presenting their own witnesses.

©2022 The Sacramento Bee. Visit sacbee.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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