Editor’s Note: This is the first of an occasional series that looks more closely at public expenses that taxpayers may not realize they’re on the hook for.
On a summer day in 2007, Brittney Mooney weaved in and out of traffic as she sped toward Lahaina on the pali. Other drivers began calling 911.
Racing at 68 mph in a 55-mile-an hour zone on the two-lane highway that hugs West Maui’s snaking shoreline, blood tests would later show she was on methadone.
As Mooney neared Ukumehame Beach Park, the car in front of her slowed to turn left. She swerved to the right, onto the highway’s dirt shoulder. Her Mazada’s tires bit a drop off and she lost control.
Mooney crossed the center line and slammed head-on into an oncoming car, splitting her own car in half. Eight-year-old William Smith, riding in the front seat next to his mom, died in the wreck. Mooney was not injured.
William’s mother, Susan Moulton, filed a lawsuit in 2008 that claimed General Motors, the maker of the rented Malibu she and her son were in, failed to provide a proper seat belt restraint. She also sued Alamo Rent-A-Car for failing to warn of the potential harm to a child using the front-seat safety belt. The suit said both companies were negligent and “placed a defective product into the stream of commerce.”
The state, which owns the highway, also was named because it “failed to provide a safe road, roadway and shoulders.”
And now its Hawaii taxpayers who are on the hook for $909,000.
Although the state was not found solely responsible for the accident, Hawaii law makes the state liable in lawsuits involving maintenance and design of highways if other parties cannot pay.
In this case, the claim against General Motors was dismissed after the automaker filed for bankruptcy protection. Alamo settled with the plaintiffs for $250,000. Mooney’s insurance company offered $100,000, but Moulton and her family have refused to accept the amount, according to testimony before the Legislature from the state Attorney General’s office.
That has left Hawaii taxpayers holding the bag.
“It’s in the law is the short answer,” said Joshua Wisch, spokesman for the Attorney General. “In any highway design case … even if the state is not responsible for all the fault, it can be held liable to pay if the other defendants don’t have enough money.”
A bill that proposed changing that law has not made any progress this session. Senate President Shan Tsutsui introduced Senate Bill 2075 by request, but the measure was deferred. It would have “clarified” that government entities are only liable for the percentage share of the damages that they actually caused. The bill is identified as part of Honolulu’s legislative package.
Glenn Okimoto, director of the Department of Transportation, testified in support of the measure, saying that the department has been forced to settle highway-related lawsuits where the state has only been found “nominally at fault.”
The state acknowledged some liability, but five years after the fatal crash, the Department of Transportation is just now making improvements to the section of Honoapiilani Highway where the accident happened. The department expects to complete a left-turn lane into Ukumehame Beach Park by August, according to transportation spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.
Other improvements, Meisenzahl said, include shoring up the highway near the beachfront park by repairing and extending the existing revetment and adding a concrete retaining wall.
The $909,000 settlement would come out of the state’s highway fund, which is filled by vehicle registration fees, the gasoline tax, vehicle weight tax and rental car surcharges. That’s nearly a million dollars that can’t be spent on road maintenance and repairs.
While the victim’s family sought damages from the state, Moulton, the child’s mother, supported a plea agreement that allowed Mooney to be released from jail after serving two years while awaiting trial.
Mooney had pleaded no contest to a manslaughter charge, which carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. She was released in September 2011 and sentenced to 10 years of probation.
While on probation, Mooney cannot apply for a driver’s license. She’s also required to give an annual presentation on the dangers of speeding, according to The Maui News.
And, on or near the June 3 anniversary of the collision, Mooney is to write a letter to The Maui News reminding readers that a child died because she was speeding.