The family of a 5-year-old boy who drowned on a Mid-Pacific Institute field trip has reached a settlement with the school for $7.26 million, an amount that attorneys believe sets a record.
Lucius Chiu and Kana Inubushi, the parents of Alaric Chiu, said they are publicizing the settlement of their Circuit Court lawsuit in hopes of raising awareness about the need for schools to take measures to protect children in their care.
“I wanted to make sure that safety procedures were put into place,” Lucius Chiu said today at a news conference hosted by Bickerton Law Group. “I wanted to make sure that schools would become more responsible and a little more careful.”
Alaric was participating in a spring break program with the school on March 28, 2019, when a Mid-Pacific employee, Maria Davis, took him and two other children out on the ocean on a kayak — an unscheduled activity that had not been disclosed to any parents.
According to the lawsuit, the two-person kayak was about 150 yards offshore when it was hit by a wave, and everyone was thrown from the kayak. Alaric drowned and Davis, 63, who had been paddling the kayak, also died. The other two children were rescued.
No one aboard had a life vest. Hawaii law requires children under age 13 to wear a life vest or personal flotation device on any watercraft.
Alaric’s 7-year-old brother was on the beach and witnessed the drowning.
The circle-island tour had no plans to stop at the Kaaawa beach, which has no lifeguards. The program staff borrowed the kayak from friends who lived nearby.
Puakailima Davis, who was the Extended Learning Program director for Mid-Pacific, was leading the field trip and was on the beach. She was both the boss and the daughter of Maria Davis, the program supervisor. Puakailima’s brother, Kae, was also there in his role as assistant supervisor, according to the lawsuit.
“As far as we’re aware, and we’ve done quite a bit of research, this is the largest publicly disclosed settlement in Hawaii for the death of a child,” said attorney James Bickerton. “It really sends a message of how important the safety of our young children is, how important it is that schools and institutions take the steps to protect children and how valuable the life of this child is.”
“Certainly the multiple mistakes made by Mid-Pacific and its employees play into it, as does the very, very tragic way in which he died and the impact on the family and also the potential that Alaric had,” Bickerton said. “Even though he was only 5, he had already demonstrated enormous potential and it was clear that he was going to be somebody special and to achieve great things.”
The lawsuit alleged reckless and grossly negligent conduct on the part of school and its staff. It also pointed to the risk of nepotism and how family relations may affect the chain of command that otherwise could serve as a check and balance on activities, the attorneys said.
In a statement issued today, Mid-Pacific President Paul Turnbull said the school has made numerous changes to improve safety. They include restructuring the Mid-Pacific senior leadership team, adding a new compliance and safety officer, and replacing the director of the school’s extended learning program.
The school has also implemented enhanced safety protocols for off-campus trips and water-based activities and it requires specific, annual health and safety training for faculty and staff, he said.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Alaric Chiu in March 2019,” Turnbull said. “There is no greater responsibility or higher priority than the safety of our students, and we reaffirm our commitment to taking all necessary actions.”
“This tragedy was truly heartbreaking,” Turnbull said. “We are hopeful this settlement and additional school safety protocols will help all in our community as they process these events, and move forward together.”
The lawsuit, filed on Jan. 16, 2020, had been scheduled for a jury trial later this year.
“In bringing suit, the Chius hoped it would have a far-reaching effect in raising standards in the institutions and businesses we trust to keep our keiki safe, not just at Mid-Pacific, but throughout the state, and we believe this has indeed happened,” said Robert Miyashita, a lead attorney on the case.
Some of the lessons of the case, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, include:
>> Making sure that employees are qualified
>> Planning ahead, developing and enforcing safety procedures
>> Requiring training of employees
>> Avoiding nepotism so that chains of command and responsibility are not affected by family ties
>> Complying with applicable laws
>> Communicating openly and effectively with staff, students and parents.
Lucius Chiu thanked the community for the tremendous support extended to his family in the wake of the tragedy. He recalled his son as a precocious and observant little boy.
“He was really smart,” Chiu said. “He was small for his age, but for some reason, he was a leader of his class. He would stand up to students who were bigger than him… He helped other students in the class whenever they needed.”
“In general, he was just very sweet, really kind,” Chiu added. “I miss him dearly. I really do.”