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Utah troopers, deputies let impaired motorist drive, lawsuit says

Published December 20, 2012 2:55 pm

Courts • Wrong-way head-on crash in Nevada killed driver and injured Utahn.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A couple is suing the Utah Highway Patrol and the Beaver County Sheriff's Office for releasing an elderly driver who caused a head-on crash.

Hours before the crash, 85-year-old Tomi Kawamoto, of Las Vegas, had been suspected of driving while impaired. Benjamin Moore and his wife, both of St. George, filed their complaint last week in 5th District Court. The couple claim negligence by troopers and deputies led to Kawamoto crashing into Moore on Feb. 12, 2011, a collision that caused Moore substantial injuries and killed Kawamoto.

It started that morning when Beaver County Deputy Sheriff Steven Kline suspected Kawamoto was impaired and pulled him over on Intestate 15, according to the lawsuit. Kline had seen Kawamoto nearly hit three vehicles and go 50 mph in an 80 mph zone, nearly coming to a stop at one point.

After Kawamoto failed a sobriety test, UHP Trooper Travis McIllnay — who came to assist — called the Beaver County attorney to discuss the incident, and following that conversation, they took Kawamoto to a Beaver hospital.

Kawamoto refused lab tests and his physician told McIllnay that he thought the man might have dementia, according to the lawsuit. When asked how old he was, Kawamoto's answers ranged from 55 to 86, and he couldn't give contact information for his family members.

The complaint states UHP Sgt. David Bairett arrived at the hospital to question the man, and it was his opinion that the driver wasn't impaired.

Kawamoto got irritated about his detention and threatened to sue UHP and McIllnay. Following the recommendation of UHP Lt. Steve Esplin, Bairett called the Beaver County Attorney, and after their talk, officers released Kawamoto, according to the complaint.

Before Kawamoto went on his way, McIllnay took him to get his front right tire replaced.

Two hours later, UHP dispatch started receiving calls about a vehicle all over the road on in the southbound lanes of I-15 in Washington County. McIllnay thought it was Kawamoto, but UHP failed to find him.

By 3:25 p.m., dispatchers in Nevada got calls about a driver going the wrong way on I-15. Five minutes later, Kawamoto crashed head-on into Moore, who was going south on the highway near Mesquite. Moore was critically injured, according to an article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal following the crash.

The officers had a duty to keep impaired drivers off the road, according to the lawsuit. Moore and his wife seek an unspecified amount in damages in the case.

Beaver County attorney Von Christiansen said Thursday morning that his office had not yet received the lawsuit and he consequently could not comment on it. UHP Cpl. Todd Johnson said Thursday that the agency could not comment on the case.

— Tribune reporter Jim Dalrymple II contributed to this story.


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