EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, New Jersey — The family of a New Jersey teen whose death last summer was ruled a suicide is suing the Medical Examiner’s Office and other state agencies, saying the investigation was flawed and there is no proof the girl intended to kill herself.
Tiffany Valiante, 18, had a “horrific” fear of the dark, was never separated from her phone and had a promising life ahead of her, those who loved her said.
So, it makes no sense that the recent graduate of Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing would have left her cousin’s graduation party July 12, 2015, ditched her cell phone on the street near her home, and walked four miles to the train tracks in Galloway Township, where she was struck by a New Jersey Transit train headed to Atlantic City, according to those who spoke at a press conference Tuesday announcing the lawsuit.
Five days later, the Southern Regional Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a suicide, saying Valiante intentionally stayed in the train’s path as the engineer sounded the horn and pulled the brake.
But the investigation was unprofessional and uninformed, said Egg Harbor Township attorney Paul D'Amato, who announced the suit at a press conference in his office Tuesday.
Her phone was found near her home’s driveway, D'Amato said. Her shoes had been discarded before she would have reached the train tracks, which was rocky and had broken glass. Her shorts were also found away from the scene.
D'Amato said the family has Valiante’s phone, which, “like most 18-year-olds, was always attached to her hip.” But, he said he couldn’t say who she had last talked to either in text or in a call.
“This certificate of death we’re not going to make the final word on Tiffany,” he said.
In what is believed to be an unprecedented civil case, the suit asks for no monetary award, but that the manner of death be changed to undetermined.
With so many questions, a lawsuit is the only way to get those answers, said D'Amato, who is handling the case for free.
Now he will be able to subpoena records he has been denied and question those involved in the case. There is also the chance that, if the manner of death is changed, the investigation could be reopened by the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office.
D'Amato could not say for certain whether there was foul play, but—after speaking with about 30 friends and family—he is convinced Valiante did not take her own life.
The state’s investigation “was unprofessional, uninformed and relied on equally superficial investigative efforts by New Jersey Transit,” he said, adding that the manner of death “should unquestionably be retracted and nullified.”
“No one should accept the medical examiner’s finding—clearly unsupported by facts—that Tiffany’s death was a suicide,” said her sister Jessie Valiante-Vallauri.
“There are far more deeply troubling questions than answers that can only be answered through this lawsuit,” said her other sister, Krystal Valiante-Summerville.
Valiante-Summerville said her younger sister had “an intense, horrific fear of the dark.”
Yet Tiffany Valiante’s supposed route that night, according to what a bloodhound tracked, had no lights.
Valiante had been at the graduation party of her cousin, who lived across the street from the girl in Mays Landing. She left the party around 9:30 that night, but was expected to return. She was struck on the tracks after 11 p.m.
At the party, Valiante was talking excitedly about her future, which included attending Mercy College in New York, one of five places that offered her a scholarship for volleyball, those there told D'Amato.
She was a standout in the game, said Allison Walker, who coached Valiante for the East Coast Crush Volleyball Club.
“I feel very strongly there is no way Tiffany could have taken her own life,” Walker said. “No possible way.”
The team could be down 10 points, with everyone losing hope, but never Valiante, Walker said.
“Tiffany was the one that was still smiling and giving positive energy to the court,” she said. “She made it her job to pick everyone else up on the court. She was beyond excited about continuing her playing career in college.”
She dreamed of playing in the Olympics and eventually pursuing a career as a police officer.
She even had an alternative plan in case college wasn’t for her: She would join the U.S. Air Force, she told her parents.
The suit names the Southern Regional Medical Examiner’s Office, the state Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the State Medical Examiner, along with not yet named individuals, partnerships and corporations.
The Attorney General’s Office and NJ Transit declined comment, citing pending litigation.