Hawaii Seeks to Limit Its Liability on Public Lands

Associated Press Writer

Hawaii's scenic hiking trails lead to the islands' lush volcanic mountains, but some also expose visitors to the risk of deadly rock falls and landslides.

Eight people died and 40 others were injured four years ago at Oahu's Sacred Falls State Park when a rockslide cascaded onto hikers. A judge last year found the state negligent; the state is appealing.

Now lawmakers are considering bills to limit the state's liability in lawsuits, hoping to avoid the only real guarantee of public safety: shutting off access to possibly dangerous trails.

A House committee in the Legislature has approved a bill to shield the state and counties from lawsuits arising out of the public's use of public lands: In state parks, the government would simply need to post warning signs. A companion measure is pending in the state Senate.

"This is a good middle ground," state Atty. Gen. Mark Bennett said.

Bennett said the Sacred Falls case was used as a guide in crafting the proposal, although he acknowledged that no sign would completely protect the state from lawsuits.

"There will always be somebody who says, 'That sign wasn't enough,' " he said.

Sacred Falls drew 70,000 visitors a year to a scenic 2.2-mile hike to an 87-foot waterfall, but has been closed since the rock fall on May 9, 1999. Dozens of hikers were sunning themselves at the deep pool beneath the waterfall when the landslide began 850 feet above them. Some of the ricocheting boulders were the size of compact cars.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of 28 people, including families of four who were killed, alleged that the state was negligent in not warning visitors of possible rock falls despite knowing of prior incidents, including a 1982 rock fall that killed a 4-year-old girl. In September, Circuit Judge Dexter Del Rosario agreed.

Opponents of the proposed bill include Consumer Lawyers of Hawaii. Attorney Bob Toyofuku, representing the lawyers' group, urged lawmakers to seek more information on negligence lawsuits filed against the state before approving a policy change.

The bill's supporters include the Department of Land and Natural Resources, and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club.

"The recreational and wilderness experiences on public lands should not be locked behind gates for fear of lawsuits and liability," the Sierra Club's Hawaii chapter said in testimony on the bill.

And some lawmakers expressed concern about the message to tourists. Democratic Rep. Alex Sonson argued that the state must do all it can to protect those who use public lands.

"Aren't we telling them that once we post a sign, we don't care what happens to you?" he asked.

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