Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Eight crosses were erected near the Sacred Falls State Park sign in 2000, in remembrance of the eight deaths that occurred during a rockslide in 1999.

State cited
for Sacred Falls

The state did not adequately
warn park users of rockfall
hazards, a judge rules

By Debra Barayuga

The state was negligent in failing to adequately warn visitors of the falling-rock hazards at Sacred Falls State Park, a state judge has ruled.

In a long-awaited decision issued yesterday, Circuit Judge Dexter Del Rosario ruled that the state was legally at fault for the injuries and deaths that occurred in the Mother's Day 1999 rockslide.

Eight people -- four women, three men and a 7-year-old girl -- were killed and 50 others injured in the rockslide, one of the deadliest natural disasters in the state's history.

The ruling came almost nine months after trial ended in the lawsuit filed by the families and estates of four of the eight people killed and several others injured.

Killed were Donna Forsch of Elk Grove, Calif.; Sarah Johnson of Hayward, Calif.; Danielle Williams of Hickam Air Force Base; Terri Zerebeski of Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada; Aaron Bann of Placentia, Calif.; Scott T. Huling of Tennessee; and siblings Jennifer and Mark Johnson of West Hills, Calif.

Families of Forsch, Sarah Johnson, Williams and Zerebeski and others injured were plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The suit alleged that the state knew about the potential for rockfalls before May 1999, including one that killed a 4-year-old girl in January 1982, but failed to adequately warn visitors of the risks or take steps to reduce the risk of injury and death.

The state, defended by the law firm of Watanabe Ing & Kawashima, contended that the rockslide was an unforeseen act of nature and that it was impossible to predict when rockslides would occur. The state maintained that the signs at the park were adequate and visitors were given the choice to assume the risks of entering the park.

In his ruling, Del Rosario found that the rock fall was not due to an "act of God" as asserted by the state.

"While falling rocks are a naturally occurring event, at all times prior to May 9, 1999, the state of Hawaii was required to use all reasonable care to protect visitors to the waterfall area of Sacred Falls State Park from the rockfall hazard," Del Rosario noted in his written findings of facts and conclusions of law.

"The state failed to adequately warn visitors of the rockfall hazard." State attorneys could not be reached for comment.

Larry Remillard, one of the plaintiff attorneys, said the court found it significant that the state had marketed and promoted the waterfall area as a recreation area for families with children and novice hikers. "But for that, the plaintiffs would not have been recreating in the rockfall zone," he said.

Yet the state required its park caretaker to wear a hard hat during the 10 minutes per week that he spent in the waterfall area, Remillard said.

"The state was inviting families with young children to swim and picnic without ever telling them it was a hard-hat zone," he said.

The court also found that the warning signs at Sacred Falls were poorly maintained and did not effectively warn park users of the severe rock hazards.

"The overall condition of the warning-sign system, which included signs that were missing, bent, gunshot and marked with graffiti, indicated the state did not have an adequate program to inspect, review or evaluate the adequacy of its warning signs," Del Rosario wrote.

"In the exercise of due care, the state should have posted more specific warnings in the area of greatest risk and in a manner that would adequately impress visitors with the extent of risk involved," he added. "The signs did not warn with the intensity and urgency demanded of the falling-rock hazard in the waterfall area at Sacred Falls."

The court noted that after 4-year-old Anita Renville was killed in 1982, state parks officials did not conduct a geological assessment of the rockfall hazard at Sacred Falls or post signs warning that the waterfall area posed the greatest danger from falling rocks.

Richard Kanayama, then-parks program manager, had written a memo to the parks administrator after the Renville accident that there was no practical or feasible means to prevent rockfalls, predict when they would occur or prevent injuries.

"The only certainty is that rocks will continue to fall, and they will cause injuries or death if they should land on anyone," he wrote.

Del Rosario also noted that the state didn't have a system to record or evaluate rockfall incidents so that future accidents could be prevented.

"A reliable accident-reporting system would have been useful to the state in assessing the continuing risk posed to park users and evaluating the adequacy of its warning signs," he wrote.

A separate trial to determine damages and comparative fault, if any, is set for January and is expected to last two to three months, Remillard said.

Arthur Park, another plaintiff attorney, said the damages in this case are "extensive" and that damages the state could face "can potentially run in the millions."

The state park in Hauula was closed immediately after the disaster and remains closed. State parks officials said last week that the court's ruling would affect whether Sacred Falls would reopen.

Michael Forsch of California, whose wife of 10 years, Donna, was killed in the rockslide, said had the plaintiffs not filed the lawsuit, "Sacred Falls would still be open, rocks would continue to fall at 90 mph and people would still be killed."

He said they had no idea of the extent of the danger that lurked at the falls that day because he saw many families and children at the park. The front desk clerk at their hotel had recommended the hike.

Over three years has passed since his wife's death, but he still has difficulty describing how he is doing. The couple had celebrated their 10-year anniversary three days before she was killed.

"I just go on with my existence. She was going to be there for the next 60 years -- she told me that," Forsch said.

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