Sacred Falls case may close parks
By David Waite
Advertiser Courts Writer
State Attorney General Earl Anzai said yesterday the state might have to close state parks and lands if a circuit judge's decision Tuesday that found the state negligent in the fatal 1999 Mother's Day rockslide at Sacred Falls State Park is left unchallenged.
Anzai said that he is "surprised and also troubled" by the ruling, and that his office is "seriously considering" filing an appeal.
State park officials in the Department of Land and Natural Resources are studying the ruling, he said. "It was kind of a chilling decision in that sense for them," he said.
In his 47-page decision, Circuit Judge Dexter Del Rosario said the state was negligent and liable for damages in one of Hawai'i's worst natural disasters, the Sacred Falls rockslide that killed eight and injured 42.
Del Rosario found that the state had failed adequately to warn park visitors they might be severely injured or killed by falling rocks if they hiked to the waterfall at the end of the trail.
"It sets a standard that's almost impossible to achieve," Anzai said of the ruling. "When you talk about adequacy, it's all in the eye of the beholder."
Del Rosario had noted that 10 warning signs were posted at the beginning and along the Sacred Falls trail.
"What else could we do?" Anzai said. "Maybe some of the signs were too high, maybe some of them were too low. Maybe we could have used different words. But that doesn't mean people can't just walk past and ignore the signs."
While one can't help but feel sympathy for those who were injured or lost loved ones in the tragedy, a policy decision must be made on whether access to areas that pose risks should be cut off altogether, Anzai said.
Arthur Park, one of the lawyers who represented 17 of the injured and families of four victims, said it would be wrong "to extrapolate too much" in terms of other parks from Del Rosario's ruling.
"The valley (where Sacred Falls is located) is a very unique place. No other place in the country even comes close," Park said. "Steep walls line a narrow valley with a frequency of falling rock, and the state knew there was a history of falling rock, especially along a 1,000-foot stretch of a 2.5-mile long valley."
The risk was the greatest at the very spot where hikers were encouraged to congregate the waterfall at the end of the trail, Park said.
Despite the signs along the trail, their message likely did not register with most hikers on the day of the rockslide, Park said. The signs warned that the area was subject to "flash floods and falling rocks," making it sound as if the two were linked, Park said. The rockslide happened on a sunny day.
Signs along the Napali coastline on Kaua'i warn hikers not to linger at the base of cliffs and waterfalls because of falling rocks, Park said, and those signs are designed to national standards.
"Those exact dangers were present at Sacred Falls, but there were no signs like that at Sacred Falls," Park said. "In the same state parks division, one manager followed national standards and another one didn't, at a park that had had at least one prior death and numerous injuries from falling rock.
"To say there were 10 signs doesn't mean anything. It's what the signs say."
How Rosario's ruling will affect public use of other parks is hard to say, Park said. But if state or city officials know of an existing hazard within a public area, they have a duty to warn the public, he said.
"First, they should try to correct the problem, and if they are going to leave the problem, they should put up proper signs using standards that have been developed through scientific means."
City Corporation Counsel David Arakawa could not be reached yesterday to say whether the city was reassessing dangers associated with city parks or the adequacy of warning signs.
But city spokeswoman Carol Costa said posting proper, adequate warning signs is a chief concern in the city's efforts to reopen the Ha'iku Stairs, and was so before Del Rosario's ruling.
The court decision sets up a trial in January to determine the amount the state must pay. Plaintiffs' lawyers said they would request millions of dollars in damages.
Reach David Waite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8030.