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Governor David Ige

Hawaiʻi State Legislature

District 8 - Kauaʻi, Niʻihau
Sen. Ronald D. Kouchi

District 14 - Hanalei, Princeville, Kilauea, Anahola, Kapaʻa, Wailua
Rep. Nadine K. Nakamura

District 15 - Wailuā Homesteads, Hanamāʻulu, Līhuʻe, Puhi, Kōloa, ʻŌmaʻo
Rep. James Kunane Tokioka

District 16 - Niʻihau, Lehua, Kōloa, Waimea
Rep. Daynette (Dee) Morikawa

United States Senate

Sen. Brian Schatz

Sen. Mazie Hirono

United States
House of Representatives

1st Congressional District
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa

2nd Congressional District
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

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Hawaiʻi Lawmakers Debate State's Responsibility on Dangerous Land
By B.J. REYES
Associated Press Writer

HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii's hiking trails lead to the scenic beauty of the islands' lush volcanic mountains, but some of those same trails also are risk of rockfalls and landslides that could lead to injuries and deaths. Eight people died and 50 others were injured in May 1999 at Oʻahu's Sacred Falls State Park when a rockslide sent boulders cascading onto hikers relaxing below. Three years later a judge found the state negligent.

State officials, who have appealed the Sacred Falls ruling, say the only way to guarantee public safety is to shut off access to possibly dangerous trails. But short of that, state lawmakers are considering bills to limit the state's liability in lawsuits.

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. It would stipulate that government has no duty to warn the public of dangerous conditions on unimproved public land.

In state parks, the government would simply need to post warning signs. A state "risk assessment group" would determine where they are needed. "This is a good middle ground," state Attorney General Mark Bennett said of the bill. A companion measure is pending in the Senate.

"We want to keep our state lands open," Bennett said. "We want to be able to have the natural beauty and natural resources of our state be available to visitors." Bennett said the Sacred Falls case was used as a guide in crafting the proposal.

The park drew 70,000 visitors a year to a scenic 2.2 mile hike to an 87-foot waterfall, but has been closed since the May 9, 1999 rockfall. 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 the state was negligent in not warning visitors of possible rockfalls, despite knowing of prior incidents, including a 1982 rockfall that killed a 4-year-old girl. Circuit Judge Dexter Del Rosario ruled in September that the rockfall was not an act of God and said the state was negligent of failing to provide sufficient warnings. The state has appealed.

Bennett said the proposed bill would protect the state from such liability in the future, although no sign would completely protect the state from lawsuits. "There will always be somebody who says, 'That sign wasn't enough,'" he said.

Others who support the bill 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 Hawaii Chapter said in testimony on the bill.

Opponents include the 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.

And some lawmakers expressed concern about the message to tourists. Democratic Rep. Alex Sonson argued 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?" Sonson asked.

The Garden Island 2003-02-24

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Updated: 2014-05-16T09:34:58-1000 (HST)