Attorneys representing the families of two hikers who died after falling 300 feet at Kauai’s Opaekaa Falls hope the state will ensure trails are properly marked to warn the public of danger.
Kauai Circuit Judge Kathleen Watanabe found the state liable Thursday for the deaths of cousins Elizabeth Ann Brem and Paula Andrea Gonzalez Ramirez, who fell from a cliff while hiking on a trail at Wailua State Park on Dec. 19, 2006.
Watanabe, among other findings, determined improper placement of a sign failed to warn Brem and Ramirez of the dangers of the trail. According to a court document, Watanabe said, “The state impliedly invited Elizabeth Brem and Paula Ramirez to use the righthand trail leading out of the Opaekaa Falls clearing and created a false appearance of safety with respect to such use and therefore owed a special duty to exercise reasonable care for their safety.”
Another trial will be set to determine damages.
Attorney Mark Davis, who represented the Brem family, said the judge’s decision brought closure to the families, and he hopes it will serve as a reminder for the state to follow guidelines concerning warnings and hazards at state parks.
He said he also hopes the state Parks Division will maintain a liaison with the police or fire county departments to ensure the state is aware of any rescues and dangerous conditions.
Attorney Teresa Tico, who represented Ramirez’s family, said that if there had been a liaison between the state Parks Division and the Kauai Fire Department, a previous accident would’ve been reported, and the circumstances concerning the fall and injury would have been identified by the state, she added. The state also would have realized the sign wasn’t properly posted, Tico said.
“Ireally hope the decision of the judge sends a message that when we invite visitors to our state, we need to ensure that our trails are safe,” said Tico.
During their first trip to Kauai, Brem and Ramirez wanted to hike to the lagoon of Opaekaa Falls. The two came upon two trails leading in opposite directions, one on the left and the other on the right, according to a court document.
Both saw a sign at the trail head on the left that read “Danger-Keep Out-Hazardous Conditions.” Brem and Ramirez proceeded to the trail on the right, which did not have any warning signs, the court document said. The trail appeared to be well traversed with dense foliage along the makai side of the trail obscuring the vertical drop of a steep cliff. The women slipped on the sloped surface before falling over the cliff.
Six months earlier a 16-year-old boy fell in the same location and survived after a tree broke his fall. On June 26, Joshua Linares was hiking on the trail. Like Brem and Ramirez, Linares did not see the drop-off. He slipped and fell over the cliff’s edge before he landed in a tree on a ledge about 200 feet down the cliff, according to the court document. Firefighters rescued Linares.
Former employees of the Department of Land and Natural Resources recommended closing the Opaekaa Falls clearing where the trail heads are located and installing fencing, but such memorandums were ignored, said Davis.
A barrier now blocks the trail heads with several signs posted to warn the public of hazardous conditions.
Brem, 35, mother of two young sons, was an attorney and partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a law firm in Orange County, Calif. Ramirez, 29, was a businesswoman in Bogota, Colombia.
Daniel Quinn, administrator of the state Parks Division, declined to comment, saying the case is still pending. Joshua Wisch, spokesman of the attorney general’s office, said the agency received the court document Monday about the decision and is still reviewing it. It has yet to be determined whether the state will file an appeal, said Wisch.