A state settlement over a deadly motorcycle crash on the Likelike Highway accounted for nearly half of taxpayers’ legal bills — totaling about $2.3 million — approved by lawmakers this year.

That settlement is one of 15 that puts taxpayers on the hook for legal costs involving state departments and employees. 

Taxpayers are also footing the bill for violations of the Clean Water Act, a lockdown drill that traumatized a middle schooler, a state employee who rear-ended a car, an inmate injured in transit, and legal fees for Hawaiian Home Lands beneficiaries who have waited for decades to get homes.

House Representatives floor session with empty gallery during COVID-19 pandemic.April 27, 2021
The Legislature this year approved spending $2.3 million to settle lawsuits filed against the state. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The state Attorney General’s Office earlier this year submitted summaries of those cases and others to lawmakers.

About $1.3 million will come straight from the general fund while just over $1 million will be pulled out of the state highway fund under Senate Bill 1039, the claims bill that lawmakers sent to Gov. David Ige on April 29.

Eighteen organizations and individuals requesting that the state reissue checks that they lost accounted for about $103,000 of those general fund claims.

Ige has until June 21 to indicate what bills, if any, he plans to veto. Since becoming governor, Ige has not vetoed similar bills that pay off claims against the state.

Motorcycle Crash On H-3 Onramp

The single largest settlement approved this year, $995,000, is for the deadly crash on Likelike Highway.

On an early morning in July 2014, two motorcycle riders crashed along a curve of an onramp leading to the H-3 on the Windward side of Oahu. Nickolaus Siu died in the crash, and Aaron Baik, who was riding behind him, fractured parts of his back, ribs and feet and also tore cartilage in his knee, according to an AG’s summary of the case.

“Baik also suffered emotional distress over loss of his best friend, including possible PTSD, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation,” the AG’s office wrote.

Siu’s family and Baik sued the state Department of Transportation, alleging that there was inadequate lighting and signage to warn drivers of the turn. State attorneys countered in court documents that Baik had been traveling faster than the posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour.

H3 Freeway on the Kaneohe Side of the Koolau Mountains.
An H-3 onramp has been the site of several deadly crashes in recent years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Since the crash, the DOT has installed more signs in the area. The state settled the case in October.

At least two others have died along the same curve in the past decade. Lawmakers approved a $900,000 settlement in 2019 for another motorcycle crash, and approved a $600,000 settlement last year for a fatal moped crash.

John Choi, who represented plaintiffs in all those cases, declined to comment Wednesday because the most recent settlement involving Siu and Baik had not been finalized, he said.

In another incident on the H-1, a metal spacer on an onramp blew out a motorcycle rider’s front tire, according to the AG’s office. The man is expected to receive $50,000 from the state settlement.

The DOT has previously testified in support of the measure to fund the settlement agreements.

Legal Fees For DHHL Beneficiaries

The second largest item on the list of settlements this year would pay for attorneys fees in a case brought by hundreds of Department of Hawaiian Home Lands beneficiaries in a legal battle stretching back decades.

The state is set to pay out more than $370,000 to cover work performed on behalf of the beneficiaries in that case.

Last year, the state Supreme Court issued a favorable ruling to those beneficiaries that allows them to begin a court process to collect damages for their time spent waiting to get homes.

However, they must continue to wait to collect those damages. Carl Varady, one of the lawyers in the case, said that process should begin later this year.

A court-appointed special master will help to calculate how much each beneficiary is owed by the state. Varady said he doesn’t have an estimate for how much money the 2,721 DHHL beneficiaries could receive in total. More than 400 of the claimants have already died since the suit was filed in the 1990s.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of claimants who could receive payments from the state.

“It’s going to be substantial. That much I think everybody agrees,” Varady said of the amount owed to beneficiaries. “Where the final total ends up will depend on the court’s rulings.”

Discharged Wastewater

The Agribusiness Development Corp., which is facing ongoing scrutiny from lawmakers, is also partly at fault for discharging polluted water into the ocean off Kauai.

In 2019, a federal judge ruled against the ADC and the state for discharging pollutants into the sea without a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. The ADC previously had that permit, but decided not to renew it in 2015.

Lawmakers approved $131,000 to cover attorney’s fees for plaintiffs in the case.

Lawmakers also decided to pay for a $75,000 settlement involving a state charter school out of general funds instead of the school’s budget over concerns that the settlement could impact the school’s operations.

That’s also the case in another $75,000 settlement involving a woman who fractured her ankle after slipping on a walkway at Aloha Stadium. Stadium officials asked lawmakers to pay for the settlement out of general funds since the facility has found itself in a precarious financial situation since the start of the pandemic.

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