John Damphier describes his recent driving history as supremely unlucky.
On June 25, he was headed north on Route 29A in his 2008 Chevy truck when he struck Johnstown musician Ed Lakata. Lakata was thrown from his Trek bicycle and killed on impact.
On July 30, Damphier, 48, of Johnstown, was driving a rental car along County Highway 107 — the truck was still in the shop — when he swerved off the road and struck a mailbox. The mailbox owner called 911. Sheriff’s deputies stopped Damphier a few miles away and said they found what appeared to be prescription pain pills in his vehicle.
Damphier is facing a wrongful death lawsuit recently filed by the Lakata family, as well as separate charges of driving while ability impaired on drugs and lane violations in the mailbox case. He plans to fight both legal actions.
“I put on a lot of miles,” he said. “Things happen when you’re on the road that much.”
During a phone conversation Wednesday, he claimed innocence on both counts and gave an account of both incidents, starting with Lakata’s death.
“Lakata swerved right into me,” he said. “His handlebars hit the middle of my hood. I was going 18 mph on the yellow line and laying on the horn. There was nothing I could have done, and that’s coming from [Fulton County Sheriff Thomas] Lorey.”
employer also named
The Lakata family, according to court paperwork, disagrees. Cynthia Lakata, Ed’s widow and the executrix of his estate, filed the wrongful death suit in state Supreme Court in Fulton County on Aug. 5. The complaint alleges negligence on the part of Damphier and his employer, Cranesville Block, caused Ed Lakata’s death.
Cranesville Block owner Joe Tesiero declined comment on the case.
Further, the suit claims Damphier was “impaired by prescription medications and/or operating a cellular telephone” when he hit the bicycle.
Shortly after Lakata’s death, Lorey called the collision “an accident in the truest sense of the word,” and Damphier was never ticketed. Authorities made no mention of medication or cellphone usage at the time.
Cynthia Lakata’s attorney, Cory Dalmata, said he obtained those details from investigative reports. Lorey could not be reached Thursday.
Damphier also plans to fight the more recent criminal charges against him, describing himself as a victim of unfortunate circumstances.
“I was run off the road by a dumptruck,” he said, recounting a stressful race to reach a Cranesville Block mixing truck in which the cement was hardening. He said he fled the mailbox scene to apply retardant to the cement mixture, but returned later to pay for the damage.
He claims the box was already repaired when he got there and that he was pulled over while returning to the job site.
“I passed all their sobriety tests,” he said, “and all I had with me was my heart medication. I’ve had two strokes.”
Damphier said he takes regular doses of pain medication for fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and two damaged knees, in addition to heart and blood pressure medication and sleeping pills.
While he admits taking the pain medication early each morning, he said “it was out of my system when I hit the mailbox.”
He admitted to a history of complications associated with his blood pressure and heart medications. He said his medication caused his blood pressure to drop so abruptly he passed out at the wheel and crashed in 2010 while driving through Montgomery County.
“I really took it on the chin with a DWAI on drugs charge,” he said.
While the two incidents are separate, Dalmata said the recent events could really help the civil case against Damphier.
“It depends how much of this is admissible in court,” he said, “but this is the sort of information that [Damphier’s] lawyer will have to look at when deciding whether to settle out of court.”
Dalmata could not comment on how much the Lakata family will seek in damages.
Damphier is set to face his traffic charges Aug. 19 in Perth Town Court.