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.
On a Friday night six years ago, Solomon Kuahiwinui and his two friends partied at Hanalei Bay beach park on Kauai’s north shore, drinking and smoking weed.
The three men, all visiting from the Big Island, continued drinking at two nearby bars before jumping into Kuahiwinui’s SUV shortly after midnight.
Kuahiwinui, whose blood-alcohol-content was almost twice the legal limit, headed toward Princeville on Kuhio Highway. He missed the turn onto the Hanalei Bridge, plowed through a guardrail, and plunged into the Hanalei River.
The vehicle landed upside-down and sank, trapping the men inside.
Kuahiwinui escaped with minor injuries. His passengers, 35-year-old Christopher Ferguson and 19-year-old Kristopher Kaupu-Kuahiwinui drowned in the vehicle. Blood tests would later show Ferguson’s blood-alcohol-content was 0.26 percent, while Kaupu-Kuahiwinui’s was 0.16 percent. Hawaii’s legal limit is 0.08.
The families of the two men killed in the accident filed separate lawsuits in 2008 against Kuahiwinui, the state, the two Hanalei bars — Tahiti Nui and the former Zelo’s, now Kalypso Island Grill & Bar — and others. The lawsuits were later consolidated.
In the suit, the plaintiffs took issue with the design of the historic Hanalei Bridge as well as the lack of streetlights near the bridge at the time of the accident.
The families agreed to settle with the state last summer for general damages: $150,000 with Kaupu-Kuahiwinui’s family and $60,000 with Ferguson’s family, according to court records.
The state Attorney General’s Office says the $210,000 will come out of the state Department of Transportation’s highway fund, which is filled by vehicle registration fees, the gasoline tax, vehicle weight tax and rental car surcharges. That’s money that can’t be spent on road maintenance and repairs.
The AG’s Office says the families settled with the driver and one of the bars for $160,000. The court ruled in favor of the second bar.
The state settlement amount is part of pending legislation seeking to settle $7.6 million worth of claims against the state. Gov. Neil Abercrombie has already signed off on a measure that will settle $5.8 million in overdue claims.
Despite the problems acknowledged in the state settlement, some proposed upgrades to the Hanalei Bridge, which was built a century ago in 1912, have met with strong community resistance.
“We’ve had plans to put in a better bridge, but there’s just been so much community opposition,” said DOT spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.
The transportation department completed repair work on the bridge in 2003, but had “elected not to make upgrades to the bridge or approaches — including guardrails — that would adversely affect the rural nature of the community,” the AG’s Office wrote in testimony about the Kuahiwinui case. “The community strongly opposed any changes to the rural nature of the bridge, their community or the traffic.”
The lack of streetlights in the area had been a problem before, causing a “high number of guardrail hits at the Hanalei Bridge,” according to the testimony. The transportation department in December 2005 had requested an estimate from the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative to install a streetlight at the bridge.
A streetlight was installed April 21, 2006 — 20 days after Kuahiwinui’s accident.