When a fatal wreck was caused by a drunken driver swerving into oncoming traffic, why are state taxpayers on the hook for nearly a million dollars?

The Hawaii Attorney General’s Office recommended that the state pay out $900,000 to the family of a 3-year-old boy who was killed in a car accident on Farrington Highway, pointing to the state’s likely liability stemming from the lack of barriers between opposing lanes of traffic at the wreck site.

Prior to the 2008 fatal accident, there had been a number of accidents where cars had crossed the center line between the Kaukama Road and Hakimo Road intersections, according to the Attorney General’s testimony.

Seven years later, there are still no barriers there, even though that would seem to leave the state liable in the event of future collisions.

HPD police vehicles rip along Farrington Highway with clouds and sunset. 13 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Honolulu police vehicles cruise along a stretch of the Farrington Highway.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Despite that, putting barriers in the section of the highway where the toddler was killed would prevent turns and be problematic for the surrounding community, Tim Sakahara, public information officer for the Hawaii Department of Transportation, told Civil Beat.

The AG’s Office declined to comment on the case, but in testimony to the Legislature on House Bill 896, it noted the state is liable for claims that relate to the maintenance and design of highways even if a crash was caused primarily because of the negligence of another party.

On May 15, 2008, a drunken driver swerved across the center line into Samuel Miles Jr.’s sedan as he was driving on Farrington Highway. Miles’ son, Koa Paka, was in the back seat and was ejected along with his car seat.

The boy died at the scene, as did the driver of the other vehicle, 25-year-old Sanford Valdez. The Honolulu medical examiner said his blood alcohol content was 0.169 percent, more than twice the legal threshold for drunken driving.

The boy’s parents, Erica and Samuel Miles Jr., along with a family friend who was in the car, filed a civil suit against the state. The  case ended in a $900,000 settlement, and the payment was recently approved by the Legislature. The money will be allocated from the State Highway Fund.

Even though the crash was caused primarily by Valdez’s negligence, if a court determined that the state was negligent, the state could still be held liable to the Miles family for all of its economic and general damages, which could easily exceed $1 million, according to the AG’s testimony.

Three years before the wreck, the state Department of Transportation installed movable barriers on sections of Farrington Highway to separate the opposing lanes of traffic. The barrier began just east of Kaukama Road and ended 580 feet west of Hakimo Road, but didn’t extend to the location where Valdez’s vehicle crossed the median in 2008.

Edwin Sniffen, the deputy director of the Hawaii Department of Transportation’s Highway Division, told Civil Beat that HDOT used “reasonable engineering judgment” in the design of the barrier system.

Residents who lived mauka of the highway didn’t want the access to and from their homes impacted by the barrier, Sniffen said.

Also, a private engineering firm hired by HDOT to design and place the barrier system took into account the road geometry, limited right of way and the angle of the Hakimo intersection, he said.

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