Thursday, February 12, 1998

Major tort reform
is needed this session

THE tax system and costly real estate are not the only deterrents to businesses locating in the islands. Hawaii is one of the few states that have failed to revise their legal system in recent years. Reform is needed to prevent civil lawsuits based on frivolous claims or seeking outlandish compensation, which drive businesses to the mainland. The Legislature can play an important role in improving the economy through tort reform.

The House Judiciary Committee has taken a step forward by approving a bill aimed at limiting compensatory and punitive damages and discouraging frivolous lawsuits. Committee Chairman Terrance Tom says the bill can "remove the fear and unpredictability from the civil justice system" and send a message that Hawaii is a good place to set up shop. The bill is supported by the state's business community.

The measure would limit compensation payments by defendants found liable in civil cases to only their share of the claim, changing the present system of docking affluent defendants -- "deep pockets" -- who are only partially responsible for the share of liability assigned to indigent defendants.

Compensation would be limited to $500,000 for non-economic damage, such as loss of companionship. Punitive damages would be limited to triple the amount of compensatory damages. And juries would have to be advised if a plaintiff already had been compensated for part of the claim at issue.

Care must be taken in protecting rights of consumers to use the court system for legitimate claims. However, those who file frivolous actions against businesses should be penalized for expenses entailed in responding to their suits.

Attempts at reforming Hawaii's tort system have bogged down in the past by lawyers trying to protect their turf. If greed can be replaced with fairness, the courts can stop being a menace to business and become an arena for equitable resolution.

Low-flying Marines

ITALIANS are understandably irate about a ski gondola tragedy caused by a low-flying American military jet. The possibility that the accident was the inevitable result of hot-dogging by Marine Corps pilots is enough to prompt a thorough investigation and assure that no similar incident occurs again.

A Marine jet known as an EA-6B Prowler last week sliced through the cables of a ski lift in the Italian Alps, causing 20 passengers in a cable car to fall to their deaths. U.S. Defense Department officials said they cannot dispute the view of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi that "tragic recklessness" was to blame for the tragedy. Marine Corps jets are supposed to be flown at least 500 feet above the ground on training missions in the area. The ski-lift cable was much lower than that -- as low as 210 feet, according to one report.

Marine Corps officials dispute Italian news reports that local officials have complained repeatedly of low-flying American military aircraft, including jets trying to pass beneath cable lines on their way to the U.S. base at Aviano. However, one squadron is known to have violated regulations 10 months ago by flying too low. Lt. Col. Stephen Watters, the squadron's commander, allegedly told his crew after last week's incident to get rid of any evidence that could be related to it, asking that any home videos of low-flying jets be given to him.

Watters has been relieved of his command and may face charges, but that alone does not assure that corrective action has been taken. Watters was not commander of the squadron involved in last week's accident; his squadron rotates with three others between a Marine base in North Carolina and the base in Aviano.

Pilots train in low-level flying because they must sometimes fly as low as 100 feet to avoid detection by enemy radar in times of war. That training must be confined to unpopulated areas. Indications are that the Marine pilots in Italy were not involved in low-level training but in dangerous hot-dogging. Severe measures may be needed to bring a halt to such misconduct.

A prison in Kau

HAWAII'S prisons are so full that overcrowded conditions and the shipping off of inmates to the mainland have become accepted facts of life. Governor Cayetano's proposed 2,300-bed prison on the Big Island would relieve that somewhat, but naysayers are starting to make themselves heard. Now residents of the community that would be most affected, Kau, are voicing their opposition to measures that would bypass county and state zoning, building and environmental laws to accelerate the massive project in their area. They should be given the courtesy of being heard.

They certainly were heard on Wednesday, when a handful flew into Honolulu to testify at the state Capitol. Moreover, at least 60 pieces of written testimony were submitted in opposition to a prison on their turf, and a petition -- signed by 1,300 residents over one weekend -- was also presented. State Sen. Andrew Levin pointed out the impressiveness of the feat, given that only 6,000 people live in the southern Big Island communities of Ocean View, Pahala and Naalehu.

Supporters of a Kau prison had collected 800 signatures last year, but may have been swayed by the dire need for jobs. As a result, "misrepresentations" may have been made, one senator said. If that is the case, and it certainly looks like it from the strong opposition flaring up, fast-tracking the project through the decision-making process is neither wise nor fair.

Now that the divisiveness of Kau is apparent, the governor should give its residents their due process. They should have a chance to participate in the decision-making process, although ultimately the fact remains: Hawaii needs another prison and alternative programs in the not-too-distant future.

Published by Liberty Newspapers Limited Partnership

Rupert E. Phillips, CEO

John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

David Shapiro, Managing Editor

Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor

Frank Bridgewater & Michael Rovner, Assistant Managing Editors

A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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