Editor’s Note: This is an installment in our occasional series, It’s Your Money, that looks more closely at public expenses that taxpayers may not realize they’re being asked to pay.

Edwin Naehu and two other Waiawa prison inmates were cleaning trays and dishes one morning in April 2009 when the hose Naehu was using to rinse off food bits burst, spraying scalding hot water onto the left side of his face.

Kitchen staff and inmates at the minimum-security prison in Waipahu usually use a stainless steel pressure hose to pre-rinse food trays in between meal services. However, the original hose had started leaking days earlier. One of the cooks, who are state employees, told the inmates to hook up a garden hose from outside to the kitchen sink, which spouts 180-degree water. To create pressure to spray the trays clean of food, inmates bent the hose, which is what Naehu was doing when the hose burst.

“There was no nozzle on the garden hose so the inmates were crimping the hose to keep up with the pace of their job,” said Rodney Ching, one of Naehu’s attorneys. “[The hose] just ruptured, so you have boiling, scalding water hitting my client’s left eye.”

Naehu was rushed to the emergency room at Hawaii Medical Center West. The physician who examined him noted that Naehu had suffered first degree burns to the left side of his face and eye, according to court records.

He would need surgery, professionals later determined, to correct a cataract, or a clouding of the lens of the eye, that had been caused by the incident.

Naehu sued the state in 2009, saying his supervisor’s negligence caused his injuries. He sued for the cost of the surgery, wage loss and “loss of enjoyment of life.” According to Naehu’s attorneys, his injury prevents the 47-year-old from going back to his welding job because he can no longer see clearly. Additionally, “he cannot play basketball with his children like he used to,” they wrote in a statement.

Naehu was released from Waiawa prison in April of 2010, nearly one year after the incident.

The court ruled in Naehu’s favor in May 2011, awarding him $38,580.

The judge determined that Waiawa prison and its staff were ultimately responsible for the safety of its inmates. The kitchen supervisor was deemed “negligent” because he did not immediately replace the leaking hose. He didn’t provide a safe substitute for the inmates to use, nor did he post any warning signs or memos. The court found:

“The Defendant State’s employees were aware, or should have been aware, that a standard garden hose…is not designed to handle that kind of hot, pressurized water, and poses a dangerous condition.”

Not only are taxpayers on the hook for Naehu’s medical bills and legal fees and judge’s award, but they are also expected to pay $3,000 interest because the department failed to tell the Legislature about it in time to have the payment authorized last year. Naehu and his lawyers have yet to see a single penny to this day, nearly two years after the ruling, according to Ching.

The Legislature is currently in the process of deciding whether to approve the claim, which is just one of many that combined will cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

The hose has since been fixed and there have been no similar injuries either before or after this incident, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety told Civil Beat.

“The hose was replaced soon after the incident with the proper attachment for hot water disbursement,” DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said in an email. “In March 2012 a new dishwasher was installed and all staff and inmates were trained on the proper use of this new equipment.”

Food service staff and managers were also instructed to immediately call a qualified repair person to service any faulty equipment, Schwartz added.

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.

Comments