Monday, September 17, 2001

The eight crosses were still up last year near the
Sacred Falls State Park sign signifying the eight deaths
that occurred during the landslide there a year before.

Sacred Falls trial
is set to begin

The state says it fairly warned
visitors, but the plaintiffs
contend it was not enough

By Debra Barayuga

On Mother's Day 1999, serene Sacred Falls State Park was plunged into chaos and horror as a mountain of rocks tumbled down on unsuspecting visitors.

On Thursday, memories of that day will be revisited as the lawsuit filed by survivors and family members of those who died or were injured goes to trial before Circuit Judge Dexter Del Rosario.

Survivors, continuing to cope with life-transforming injuries and other losses, are hoping the trial will bring some closure, said plaintiff attorney Laurent Remillard. "They just want a fair opportunity to be heard and their claims adjudicated."

In all, eight people -- four women, three men and a 7-year-old girl -- were killed in the May 9 rockslide, one of the deadliest natural disasters in the state's history. Fifty others were injured.

Killed were Donna Forsch of Elk Grove, Calif.; Sara 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, stationed at Hickam Air Force Base; and siblings Jennifer and Mark Johnson of West Hills, Calif. All except Huling, Bann and the Johnson siblings are plaintiffs in the upcoming trial.

A geologist film of Sacred Falls State Park after the landslide.

Attorneys Remillard and Arthur Park represent more than two dozen plaintiffs who contend the state knew about the potential for rockfalls and other hazards at Sacred Falls before the 1999 disaster and breached its duty by failing to adequately warn park-goers.

The plaintiffs accuse the state of negligence for opening the park in the first place; failing to properly enforce permits issued to vendors who set up tables outside the park gates; and failing to limit access to the park after injuries involving falling rocks occurred, including the death of a 4-year-old girl in January 1982.

"The injuries and deaths at Sacred Falls State Park on May 9, 1999, were not the result of an act of God, but were rather the direct result of the state of Hawaii's reckless park development and management practices," according to court documents filed by the plaintiffs.

The state, defended by the law firm of Watanabe Ing & Kawashima, contends that while rockfalls have occurred in the past at Sacred Falls, it is impossible to predict when they will occur, and therefore visitors are warned and given the choice whether to assume the risk of entering the park.

"We are clearly, emphatically denying the state was negligent," said Randall Yamamoto, one of the attorneys defending the state at a recent hearing during which the plaintiffs attempted to strike down the state's "act of God" defense.

The injuries plaintiffs sustained on May 9, 1999, were due to the "an act of nature" -- falling rocks that could not have been predicted, prevented nor caused to fall by the state, Yamamoto argued.

The state, in court documents, said visitors were warned of the hazards at Sacred Falls by at least 10 signs at the park, through the state's online Web site and the Hawaii State Parks Visitor's Guide to Park Resources and Recreational Opportunities.

The signs warn visitors that the area is subject to falling rocks which have resulted in death and injuries and that they use the area at their own risk.

The state, as one of its defenses, contends opening and closing the park on a permanent basis are discretionary functions from which the state is protected from liability because of "sovereign immunity" -- the concept that the state is immune from lawsuits except to the extent it allows itself to be sued.

The plaintiffs allege that deaths and injuries could have been prevented had the state researched the hazards of Sacred Falls valley before purchasing it, assessed the potential risk of rockfalls and other hazards after the 4-year-old girl was killed and her father injured by falling rocks and other incidents involving injuries, reviewed its promotion of Sacred Falls to the visitor industry and reviewed its warning signs and visitor education practices.

"At an absolute and utter minimum ... the state should have posted and maintained warning signs in Sacred Falls State Park which instructed park-goers to avoid andor not to linger at the base of the waterfall and steep cliffs in the park," plaintiffs contend.

The trial is divided into two phases -- liability and damages -- with the liability portion estimated to last about 112 months.

Since the tragedy, Sacred Falls has remained closed to the public while the state works with a community-based advisory committee to develop a master plan for the park.

Legislators appropriated $250,000 last session to update the park's master plan.

Deciding whether to reopen the park is a policy-level decision that requires evaluating existing physical conditions, options for continued use and implications of potential park closure, said Deborah Ward, spokeswoman for the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

"We feel it has been important for time to pass to allow the land to heal," Ward said. "The Department of Land and Natural Resources has committed all along the way to let a planning process be community driven, and we look forward to working with the community in this process."

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