Court awards $2.3M
in Maui death

The settlement goes against
the National Park Service for
a May 2002 Oheo Pools drowning

A federal judge has found the National Park Service negligent for failing to warn visitors away from Maui's popular Oheo Pools on a day when the flooded stream swept a woman to her death.

Xina Wang: Her husband wins $2.3 million in damages over her drowning at Oheo Pools

U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie awarded $2.3 million in damages yesterday to Timothy Wendt, of New York City, for the May 2002 death of his wife, Xina Wang, at the area also known as Seven Sacred Pools.

"The circumstances created a trap for the unwary to which (Wang) regrettably fell victim," said Rafeedie in his judgment. "The court's conclusion is that the National Park Service ranger never did in fact decide to close the pool due to dangerous conditions on May 4, 2002, until after the drowning of the plaintiff decedent."

The area at the Kipahulu side of Haleakala National Park has been the scene of other deaths. The stream passing through a series of waterfalls and pools can change within minutes from a calm flow to a raging flood when there is heavy rainfall in the mountains.

Park rangers testified last week at the trial that signs announcing that the pools were closed were posted at the visitor center on that day, and the warning message on a "flip sign" was visible on the stairway leading to the pools.

But Rafeedie said he believed the testimony from other visitors, who returned for the trial to support Wendt's recollection that there was no warning notice. "These witnesses ... had no ax to grind; they had no reason to lie," said the judge.

"Basically, when it hits home that they had a drowning for which they would be blamed in the area, I believe that is when the activity begins ... to flip the sign, to post signs on the clubhouse door and to create a scenario to shift the blame," said Rafeedie. "The court believes that this contrived story is simply evidence of guilty conscience, guilty knowledge ... of wrongdoing."

Wendt's attorney Mike Livingston said Wang, 42, slipped and fell while crossing the Oheo stream and was swept over two waterfalls into the churning ocean. Wendt jumped in and tried to hold onto her until, after about 15 minutes, she "eventually became exhausted and drowned," the lawyer said. Wendt was later airlifted off a rock.

Another visitor took photos that "established the water level at the time," Livingston said.

Witnesses Troy and Julie Brandt testified that they wore swimming suits into the visitor area and asked questions indicating they intended to swim in the pools, but were given no verbal warning.

Haleakala National Park Superintendent Don Reeser said yesterday that the park has been taking steps to warn visitors about the danger of potential flash floods in streams. He declined to comment on the case.

"I can tell you in the last couple of years, we've been putting up more warning signs and looking at a system for warning Kipahulu visitors," Reeser said. He said the park has conducted a study and is considering installing stream gauges in upland areas to tell rangers when to close the stream. "That's what we've been doing so that kind of accident can be prevented," he said.

The court awarded $1 million to Wendt for his loss of companionship and emotional distress and $800,000 for income lost by the death of his wife, a Lord & Taylor clothing store executive. The settlement included $500,000 in general damages to Wang's estate for her emotional distress.

Star-Bulletin reporter Gary Kubota contributed to this report.



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