Family loses rockfall fatality case
The Onishis are still trying to compel the city to act to prevent a similar tragedy
The city was not at fault for the 5- to 10-ton boulder that tumbled down a Nuuanu hillside and crashed into the Patrick Onishi home, killing his 26-year-old daughter four years ago, a jury has found.
A Circuit Court jury deliberated for about four hours last week and yesterday before rejecting the family's request for at least $1.8 million in damages, and absolving the city of negligence in the Aug. 9, 2002, accident.
Yale graduate Dara Onishi died after being hit by the boulder as she slept in the Henry Street home the family has lived in for more than 30 years.
"The city didn't do anything to cause that boulder to fall," Deputy Corporation Counsel Marie Gavigan said afterward. "It was an unfortunate situation but the city was not liable."
The Onishis contend that the city was responsible for a drainage system that ran along Pacific Heights Road and under private land above them that dumped rainwater into a culvert in the Onishis' back yard, eroding the soil and causing the boulder to fall. The city maintained the drainage system had nothing to do with causing the boulder to dislodge.
Patrick Onishi said his family is disappointed in the jury's decision but that they sued the city for the right reasons.
Their daughter had wanted to leave this world a better place, and it is a value they discussed in deciding whether to move forward with the suit, he said. In the end it was a matter of principle.
"We strived to do the right thing, and we put ourselves at risk and knew it would have to be argued in court," Onishi said.
They had refused to accept the city's offer to settle because the city was not willing to stop the water from being dumped from their back yard or to formalize the easement, he said.
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
The verdict was read yesterday in the Onishi family's lawsuit against the city. Patrick, left, Gail and Blaine Onishi listened as the jurors were polled after the city was cleared of blame for Dara Onishi's death.
That is because the city knew other residents face the same rockfall hazards that they have lived with, and "if they acknowledged our case, it would set a precedent," Onishi said.
"For a family to go through the loss and know others are in the same conditions and the city is unwilling to acknowledge, this is an unconscionable position to take," he said.
At the least, the city should notify residents who face similar hazardous conditions, and let them decide. "For them to move ahead with business as usual, I think, is wrong," Onishi said.
As a former planning director with the city for four years, Onishi said he observed city officials dealing with such issues before, and it required using some sensibilities, particularly if the community was at risk.
"I'm not saying the city is bad people, but some of the methods they use in making decisions and the action that follow aren't well conceived," he said.
City attorneys could not be reached to comment.
Despite the loss, the Onishis are not done. In a separate pending court matter, they and their neighbors are asking a judge to order the city to remove two more boulders that lie in the drainage ditch above their homes. Experts retained by the Onishis and two neighbors have recommended that they vacate their homes. Just 10 days after Dara Onishi was killed, the landowner discovered and removed two other boulders in the drainage path.
STAR-BULLETIN / AUGUST 2002
Workers including Ben Poblete, attempt to break up and remove a boulder from the basement of 2527-A Henry St., where Dara Onishi died four years ago.
The Onishis had settled earlier with the Vaughan Trust, owner of the land that the drainage pipe runs through before dumping water into the Onishis' back yard, but most of the confidential settlement went toward rockfall mitigation work on the Vaughan property.
The Onishis have agreed to put up a $200,000 fence to protect them and their neighbors from falling boulders, and to pay for the removal of two boulders discovered in the drainage path that have been threatening their homes since. Their expenses have far exceeded the amount they settled for, and do not include their costs in this lawsuit.
It has been a long four years for the family since his daughter died, Onishi said. From their experience, they learned that "you can't just fight City Hall," said Gail Onishi in a prepared statement.
She noted that some good has come from their tragedy, in that the state, private trusts and individuals have become more responsible and are taking action to prevent lives from being lost.
Also, an endowment fund was established at Yale in Dara Onishi's name to offer summer scholarships for students to work with at-risk children in the community.