In a last-minute hearing Thursday, a key House panel passed a bill to protect the state in the case of lawsuits over accidents on public land.
It was a surprise victory for fans of extreme sports in Hawaii, particularly rock climbers who have been frustrated by the state’s decision to close all rock-climbing sites two years ago over liability issues.
As late as Thursday morning, it appeared Senate Bill 1007 might fail because House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke hadn’t scheduled a hearing for it by an internal House deadline on Wednesday.
But the committee ended up taking up the bill on Thursday afternoon, notifying the public of the hearing just seven minutes before it was scheduled to start.
Despite the late notice, outdoor enthusiasts quickly crowded the hallway outside of the hearing room to urge lawmakers to pass the bill.
Thea Ferentinos, a member of an organization called the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club, said she was glad that the committee decided to consider the proposal, but she was troubled by the delay before the vote. The bill was referred to Luke on Feb. 10.
“There’s no clear understanding of why it would have taken five weeks,” she said. “It’s really upsetting that one person could end a huge grassroots effort.”
Luke, an attorney who practices personal injury law, did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
The proposal has received overwhelming public support from rock climbers, paragliders and other aficionados of extreme sports who are worried that the state will close more natural recreational areas because of liability concerns.
More than 2,280 people from Hawaii and the mainland signed a Change.org petition urging the Legislature to pass the bill. No one testified against the measure on Thursday.
The Attorney General and the Department of Land and Natural Resources both strongly supported the measure, noting that it could save the state millions of dollars in potential lawsuits because the state would have, at most, limited responsibility for any accidents that occur.
DLNR Chairman William Aila said the DLNR closed all rock climbing areas in 2012 after a 12-year-old girl was critically injured.
Aila said that if SB 1007 House Draft 1 becomes law, the state will be able to open up the sites, including Mokuleia, a prime rock-climbing spot near Kaena Point on the North Shore.
That’s good news for people like Dawn Bruns, a resident of Sunset Beach who used to spend every Sunday afternoon scaling Mokuleia.
“I’ve really missed it these past two years,” she said.
The state’s decision to close rock-climbing spots also hurt some small business owners, like Mike Richardson, who owns a gear shop in Honolulu called Climb Aloha. Richardson said his sales of recreational gear have fallen by more than 70 percent since then.
SB 1007 HD 1 would make permanent an existing law that established a system in which the state analyzes natural recreational sites, puts up hazard signs if necessary, and is thus protected from unlimited liability for accidents.
The bill would also expand the current system so that the state could also warn of “non-natural” hazards such as a fraying rope that people use to climb a cliff.
UPDATED The Finance Committee passed a more limited version of the bill that merely makes existing law permanent. Climbers like Richardson are worried that it doesn’t offer enough liability protection to ensure that trails will open up.
The proposal goes next to the full House for a vote.
Contact Anita Hofschneider via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @ahofschneider
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