Rock climbers, mountain bikers and other outdoors enthusiasts filed an ethics complaint Thursday against a state House lawmaker over changes her committee made changes to a bill that could help expand public access to Hawaii’s mountains and trails.
The proposal would have guarded the state from lawsuits if hikers, paragliders and others get hurt on unimproved state-owned lands where signs warn people of dangers associated with man-made features such as ladders, ropes, ramps and climbing walls.
Rep. Sylvia Luke, a Democrat representing Maikiki, moved a stripped-down version of the measure out of the House Finance Committee, removing some major provisions. The House passed the amended version Tuesday as even fellow Democrats criticized the changes.
Outdoors enthusiasts had championed the measure, hoping it would allow Hawaii to reopen lands that were closed after accidents led to the state being sued for millions of dollars.
Beyond recreational enthusiasts, the attorney general’s office and the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources also testified in support of the bill (SB 1007).
The complaint sent to the state ethics commission Thursday says Luke’s work as a personal-injury attorney affected her decisions as committee chairwoman. Representatives from groups such as the Hawaii Mountain and Trail Club, the Hawaii Paragliding Association and the Hawaii Mountain Bike Ohana were among the 22 signatories.
"The state shouldn’t be liable," said Mike Richardson, the owner of Climb Aloha, a rock-climbing shop in Honolulu, and one of the people who signed the complaint. "People are going to do these things whether we warn or not."
Luke said she had no conflict on the decision because the solution she prefers — having people sign waivers before attempting risky recreation on public land — would better protect the state from lawsuits.
"It’s taking a front-end approach," Luke said. "The end result would be making sure we have great access to public lands but ensuring the state have full immunity — not like what was in the bill."
The complaint alleges that Luke’s position as an attorney with the firm Cronin Fried Sekiya Kekina and Fairbanks created a conflict of interest when she considered a bill that could affect the state’s exposure to personal injury lawsuits.
The firm’s website lists "recreational accidents" as an area of expertise. When its investigators take a case involving such an injury, "improperly marked hiking or dirt bike trails" are among the features they look for, the site states.
The measure was introduced in 2013 as part of the Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s package of bills. This year, it seemed to have near-universal support, passing the Senate unanimously and receiving overwhelmingly supportive testimony from advocates and government agencies.
The only written testimony submitted in opposition to the bill came from a group of lawyers called the Hawaii Association for Justice. Its website lists Luke as a member attorney.
Les Kondo, the executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, said the commission will examine the complaint and investigate it if it has merit.
The bill did make permanent an act that limits the state’s liability on natural features. It was due to expire this summer.
The attorney general’s office is "absolutely committed" to working with the Department of Land and Natural Resources to reopen the rock climbing wall at Mokuleia, said Anne Lopez, the special assistant to the attorney general. That popular, anchor-littered wall has been closed since a girl was hurt by a falling rock near there in 2012.
Those offices have discussed a waiver system, Lopez said, but that approach has its limits.
"For people who might just be wandering around and hiking and discover something, there’s no way to stop them and make them sign a waiver first," she said. "That’s where the stumbling block is in finding a solution. You simply can’t monitor all the unimproved lands."