SALT LAKE CITY — The driver for a group of Japanese tourists had little sleep after an 11-hour work day and was dozing off when the shuttle bus rolled on a southern Utah highway and killed three passengers, according to a lawsuit filed by two of the 14 tourists.
Kei Maeda and his wife, Mai, were celebrating their first wedding anniversary when the crash left him with a broken neck and her with a punctured lung and an eye injury, said a Utah lawyer filing the first lawsuit from the crash. It names the driver, a bus company and a pair of tour organizers as defendants.
The 26-year-old driver, Yasushi Mikuni, a Japanese citizen living in Las Vegas on a U.S. work and education visa, appeared in a Utah court Tuesday on criminal charges stemming from the Aug. 9 crash on Interstate 15 near Cedar City.
Mikuni showed up to answer for 10 felony counts of negligent driving under the influence, a misdemeanor charge of having marijuana residue in his system, and logbook and unsafe lane-change violations. Mikuni was not required to enter a plea, and 5th District Judge G. Michael Westfall set a preliminary hearing for Jan. 26.
Kei and Mai Maeda, both 29, returned to Japan last week after hospital stays in Utah. Their civil claims are the first and possibly the only that will be filed because the other Japanese tourists left the U.S. unfamiliar with their legal rights, Scott Brown, the couple’s lawyer, said Tuesday. Other passengers were critically injured, and the driver was the only occupant of the bus other motorists found standing afterward.
New allegations in the lawsuit filed Friday at federal court in Salt Lake City assert that Mikuni had driven for 11 hours the day before the crash, taking an empty bus from the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy to Las Vegas, then got less than seven hours of sleep. It says Mikuni repeatedly dozed off and hit highway rumble strips and wasn’t wearing eyeglasses required by his driver license.
Utah Highway Patrol investigators disputed another allegation in the lawsuit that Mikuni had been speeding at more than 80 mph. The bus was traveling around 75 mph, the speed limit, Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Ryan Bauer told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
A speed of 80 mph wouldn’t have been significant on a stretch of highway where the limit is due to be raised to 80 mph anyway, Bauer said. Troopers found plenty of reasons for negligence, but speed wasn’t one of them.
An arrest warrant obtained by the AP quoted Mikuni saying he had been smoking marijuana heavily for days before the deadly accident. But at the time the charges were announced, Bauer clarified the driver wasn’t legally impaired. Investigators believe fatigue was the major factor, and that he nodded off before flipping the bus 1 1/2 times.
The lawsuit claims Mikuni smoked pot for three hours the night before and had to sustain himself on energy drinks and nicotine gum while driving. Like other claims, some of which appear to be taken from the police investigation, the lawsuit offers no attribution.
Utah’s online court dockets show Garrett Ogata, a prominent Las Vegas DUI attorney with a Utah law license, showed up as Mikuni’s defense lawyer in court Tuesday. Ogata didn’t immediately return a message relayed by his office. Mikuni remains free on $50,000 bail.
Other defendants named in the couple’s civil case are Canyon Transportation Inc. of Sandy, which provided the Ford E350 shuttle bus, and tour organizers Western Leisure Inc. in Utah and Nippon Travel Agency in Japan.
Kei and Mai Maeda paid Nippon for a tour of Utah and Arizona canyonlands, and Nippon contracted with Western Leisure of Midvale to set up the tour, according to their lawsuit. None of the companies has been charged by prosecutors.
The Utah lawyers representing Canyon Transportation, Dennis James and Brian Hess, didn’t return phone messages Tuesday from the AP.