BY JIM DOOLEY – The state of Hawaii legally caused the deaths of two women who fell 300 feet down a cliff in a Kauai park in 2006, a Circuit Court judge has ruled.
A teenaged hiker nearly died at the same site six months earlier when he fell 200 feet and landed in a cliff-side tree, but park officials failed to close the area or adequately warn visitors of the extreme dangers there, Judge Kathleen Watanabe ruled.
The decision came in a lawsuit filed by the families of the two dead women, Elizabeth Brem of California and her cousin, Paula Gonzalez, of Colombia, South America.
The state failed “to protect or warn Elizabeth Brem and Paula Ramirez against the extreme and hidden dangers it knew existed within the Opaeka’a Falls clearing and the trails originating in that area,” Watanabe ruled.
The decision came following a nine-day non-jury trial held last month on whether the state was liable for damages suffered by the families of the two victims.
Another trial will be held to determine how much money the state and its insurance carrier must pay.
The figure is likely to be very substantial. Brem, 35, a wife and mother of two young sons, was a highly successful Southern California securities attorney. Ramirez was 29 and looked upon her older cousin as “a mentor and big sister,” Watanabe wrote in a 44-page decision.
Staff in the Kauai offices of the State Department of Land and Natural Resources had repeatedly notified their superiors that the trail area above Opaeka’a Falls in Waialua River State Park was dangerous to hikers and visitors who frequented the area.
A sign that said “DANGER KEEP OUT HAZARDOUS CONDITIONS” was posted in a clearing off Kuhio Highway where two trails led to the falls, the judge said.
But the sign was posed in front of just one trail, and the other route also posed an extreme danger, the judge found.
The sign “actually made the area more dangerous and had effectively created a trap in which park visitors were likely to be misled into following the right hand trail into the treacherous area,” the judge ruled.
That was what happened on June 29, 2006, when Joshua Linares visited the area with six family members who planned to hike down to the lagoon at the base of the falls.
Linares, who was 16 at the time, testified at the trial after Kauai attorney Teresa Tico, who represented the family of Gonzalez, found him through a search of Facebook pages.
The Linares family saw the warning sign at the left-hand trail.
“They observed the right-hand trail without any sign posted in the entrance and observed that the right-hand trail ‘was very open, very inviting,’” Watanabe wrote, quoting Linares’ trial testimony.
Linares could not see a “precipitous drop-off” because “it was obscured by the dense vegetation,” Watanabe wrote.
“He could not see the valley floor or the falls and he could not see any cliffs. He had no sense of danger,” the judge said.
Linares slipped and fell off the cliff, landing “hurt but alive in a tree on a ledge 200 feet down the cliff,” the decision continued.
Five months later, on Dec. 19, 2006, Brem and Ramirez fell to their deaths at the same location.
The same single warning sign stood at the left-hand trail.
“The right-hand trail looked the same as it had looked on June 29, 2006, when Joshua Linares fell,” Watanabe said in her decision.
“The Court concludes that the extreme dangers at that site were hidden from view,” the ruling continued.
The state failed to “exercise reasonable care to protect the public,” Watanabe ruled.
“This failure was a legal cause of the deaths of Elizabeth Brem and Paula Ramirez,” the judge decided.
Erin Davis, an attorney for the Brem family, said in a written statement that her clients suffered “a devastating loss” and hope that Watanabe’s ruling may help to prevent “future injuries and deaths in Hawaii state parks.”