Advocates of a bill aimed at increasing access to rock-climbing spots and public trails across the state have filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Sylvia Luke alleging she misused her power as a committee chairwoman to weaken Senate Bill 1007, which would extend and expand an existing law protecting the state from unlimited liability for accidents on public land.

Nearly two dozen people signed a complaint filed with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission on Thursday contending that Luke carved out a significant part of the bill because she is a personal injury lawyer and she and her firm stand to lose business if the state has a stronger shield against lawsuits.

Luke dismissed the allegation. She said rather than expanding the existing system where the state puts up warning signs for dangerous places, she wants the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to create a permitting system that requires people who use public land to sign waivers giving up their right to sue.

Regarding the criticism about potential conflict of interest, Luke said, “I can’t really stop people from thinking that way. The way I want to push this issue is contrary to that conflict.”

Ethics Complaint

The ethics complaint filed against Luke contends that she should have recused herself from considering the bill in part because she is employed by Cronin Fried Sekiya Kekina & Fairbanks, a company that markets itself as the largest personal injury law firm in the state.

Among other areas, the firm deals with tourist accidents and recreational accidents including those related to dirt biking, parasailing and hiking. On its website, the company lists “improperly marked trails or bike trails” as an example of negligence that could be the basis for a lawsuit.

The portion that Luke cut from SB 1007 would have allowed the state to warn of such a hazard to protect itself from unlimited liability.

The complaint also notes that Luke is a member of the Hawaii Association for Justice, an organization of consumer lawyers that lobbied against SB 1007.

The group was the only one to oppose the bill, which had overwhelming support from the Attorney General, DLNR and more than 2,000 Hawaii residents and visitors who signed a petition urging the Legislature to pass it. Much of the support comes from rock climbers who are hoping to reverse the state’s decision to close rock climbing trails two years ago because of liability concerns.

Advocates for the bill have also been disappointed in the time it took to bring the bill up for hearing. Luke waited five weeks to hear the bill and called a last-minute hearing for it with very little public notice.

Luke emphasized that she is committed to protecting the state from spending huge sums on settling lawsuits, but thinks that creating a permitting process in which people sign waivers giving the state immunity would be more effective than the current system of analyzing hazards and putting up warning signs.

“I don’t want the state to be chasing where the dangerous conditions are,” she said, adding that she wants to the state be ”proactive in asking for people’s cooperation for getting permits.”

But some have questioned the feasibility of that approach. Rep. Sharon Har criticized Luke’s handling of SB 1007 during the House session on Tuesday and said Luke’s proposed alternative seemed impractical. Despite disagreement over it, the bill passed the House Tuesday and lawmakers will consider how to amend it in conference committee this month.

DLNR Director William Aila said that the department has considered the possibility of setting up a permitting system to allow rock climbers to access closed trails, but decided instead to advocate for SB 1007. He’s not sure how much in the way of resources the department would need to set up a permitting system, but has promised to work with the climbers to find a way to open up the trails.

“It’s always clearer if you have a state law,” he said.

Contact Anita Hofschneider via email at anita@civilbeat.com or on Twitter at @ahofschneider

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