Damaged Amtrak bus.
A Goleta woman accused of driving this Amtrak bus after using methamphetamine and causing a crash last year changed her plea to guilty in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on Wednesday. (Keith Carls / KCOY News photo)
Laura Mae Gish

Laura Mae Gish

Two civil lawsuits have been filed in Santa Barbara County Superior Court against a bus company, a Goleta woman and others weeks ahead of her criminal trial for allegedly driving under the influence of methamphetamine at the time of a crash in northern Santa Barbara County. 

Laura Mae Gish, 51, was arrested after the southbound Amtrak bus ran off the roadway and crashed near Los Alamos on Jan. 18.

Gish was driving a 2015 Volvo bus carrying about 25 passengers on Highway 101 in light traffic at about 5:30 a.m. when she allowed the vehicle to drift off the road and into a tree. The vehicle came to rest on its side in a dirt culvert. 

After a preliminary hearing last summer, Gish was ordered to stand trial on charges of driving under the influence causing injury, along with special allegations for causing bodily injury and injuring more than one person. 

She also faces a misdemeanor charge of possessing a controlled substance.

A jury trial, estimated to last seven days, is set to start Dec. 16 before Judge Patricia Kelly.

However, the defendant and attorneys will return to court Dec. 4 for a readiness-and-settlement conference, and Dec. 11 to confirm the trial will proceed as planned.

In the past six weeks, two bus passengers have filed civil lawsuits that name as defendants Gish, her former employer, AmericanStar Tours, and other defendants.

A lawsuit filed Oct. 15 in Santa Maria Superior Court on behalf of passenger Keith Christl alleges several types of negligence, along with negligent hiring, calling Gish “an unfit employee” and alleging a criminal history and prior drug use. 

This lawsuit also named bus company co-founder and owner Robert Dockerty as a defendant. 

The plaintiff, represented by Newport Beach attorney John Christl, seeks special, general and punitive damages of more than $25,000.

A case management conference before Judge James Rigali has been scheduled for Feb. 24.

A second lawsuit, on behalf of Hailey Keidel, also names Santa Barbara  County, the state of California, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak), and Caltrans as defendants. 

That lawsuit was filed by by Jason Maves from the Parris Law Firm.

Likewise, the lawsuit filed Nov. 26 alleged several types of negligence and claims the plaintiff received severe injuries.

“Defendant AmericanStar Tours … owned the bus operated by Gish, and had a responsibility to make sure that the driver of their vehicle was fit to drive,” the claim says. 

“The injuries received by plaintiff have greatly impaired her health, strength and activity, and have thereby caused and continue to cause her great mental, physical and nervous pain and suffering, and an extreme shock to her nervous system,” the claim added.

Keidel also seeks damages exceeding $25,000. 

A case-management conference has been scheduled for March 25 before Judge Pauline Maxwell. However, since the crash occurred in the North County, it’s likely to the case will be sent to Santa Maria Superior Court. 

Civil lawsuits represent only one side of the allegations, and defendants typically submit a response after being served paperwork weeks after the case is filed. 

Representatives for the bus company did not return a call for comment.

AmericanStar, also known as American Trailways, is based in San Luis Obispo County, and has operated since 1991.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com.