Lawmakers annually set aside money to pay for settlements against state agencies. This year’s top offender is the Department of Transportation.

Hawaii taxpayers are set to pay out more than $24 million for lawsuits against the state this year, with the Department of Transportation responsible for the biggest share due to an accident caused by a runaway truck.

In the single biggest case, the driver of a refrigeration truck from Pinky Tows – a local towing company distinguished by its fleet of hot pink trucks – experienced brake failure on the Likelike Highway. The driver intended to use a runaway truck ramp, but barricades at the ramp’s entrance made it appear closed, according to testimony from the Attorney General’s Office

The plaintiff was in one of several cars waiting at a nearby red light when the refrigeration truck crashed into them, leaving him with “severe, permanent, and debilitating head, brain, and other bodily injuries.”

That single settlement accounts for $17 million, more than 70% of the money appropriated for claims against the state this year. The total lawsuit is for $26 million, with the other $9 million covered by state excess insurance.

Oahu Community Correctional Center.
A settlement against the Department of Public Safety is costing taxpayers $700,000 after an inmate was beaten to death by other inmates. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The Legislature annually appropriates money for claims like this but the amount of money tends to vary each year. 

Last year, the Legislature appropriated more than $335 million, including a hefty $328 million to 2,700 Native Hawaiians who alleged that mismanagement within the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands was preventing them from getting off the department’s notoriously long waitlist for land. The year before that, lawsuit payouts came to about $3.5 million.

Compared to other state agencies, the DOT routinely ranks near the top in terms of money it costs taxpayers related to lawsuits and settlements. While general funds are intended to cover all other appropriations this year, the bill’s DOT share will come from DOT funds. 

The agencies that account for the most claims are generally the DOT, the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Land and Natural Resources.  

This year, claims against the DPS add up to $937,500 and include a $700,000 settlement to the mother of an inmate who was beaten to death by other inmates, allegedly for quitting a prison gang and for being a “snitch.” The suit claims that the prison failed to protect him by not keeping him in protective custody.

In the case of the DLNR, taxpayers are on the hook for $879,394 after a tree along Kamehameha Highway in Kaaawa fell onto a car, injuring the two occupants inside and leaving them with chronic pain. The tree was on DLNR land, but the DLNR thought it was on a DOT easement so neglected to monitor the tree. 

Miscellaneous claims total $4,251,696 and are all related to reissuing outdated checks that were deemed misplaced or lost.

The Legislature sets aside money each year to pay for claims against the state. The total cost varies, but the top few agencies that cost taxpayers the most money are generally the same. (Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2023)

The State Foundation on Culture and the Arts former executive director Allison Wong received a settlement of $55,000 from the state. Wong’s brief tenure as executive director, which started in August 2022, was plagued by concerns about her performance, leading to a shift in leadership and the resignation of the board’s chair Lloyd Unebasami. 

The appropriation bill, Senate Bill 1277, has so far cleared each legislative chamber. Its next stop will be conference committee, where lawmakers will agree to a single version of the bill before sending it to the governor. 

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