HONOLULU - A judge has found that the state was liable for the deaths of two people in a car that plunged 150 feet from a scenic overlook in 2005 and must pay more than $3.2 million in damages.
On Wednesday, 2nd Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza issued a 200-page decision finding the state "solely and wholly" liable for the deaths of 16-year-old James Makekau and Denise Callo, 34, both of Pukalani.
The 1992 Nissan sedan that Callo was driving fell from an unofficial scenic overlook on Honoapiilani Highway between Maalaea and Ukumehame when a portion of a wall collapsed as the car was making a U-turn to leave the area on April 13, 2005. The right front tire of the car had hit the unmortared rock wall. The car tumbled down a slope and plunged to the rocky shoreline below.
A 3-month-old girl and her 16-year-old mother, Tiffany Romena, also riding in the car, survived the crash. Romena got out of the car as it was descending and climbed up the cliff for help. Rescuers found the infant crying and relatively unharmed in the back of the car.
A medical examiner at the time found that the driver, Callo, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.27 percent and had been using marijuana.
"We are disappointed by the court's decision," said Joshua Wisch, special assistant to the state attorney general. "The state presented substantial evidence at trial to show that it was not at fault. The official police investigation concluded that the driver was almost three times over the blood alcohol legal limit, had been smoking marijuana with the passengers, and actually drove off the cliff." The state has 30 days from the time that the court enters a judgment to decide whether to appeal.
According to the ruling, the state was aware that the remnant of the old highway was being used as a scenic lookout, yet there were no barriers to limit access or prevent a vehicle from going over the cliff's edge. There also weren't any signs warning of dangers or closing the area to vehicles, the court found.
"For seven years, I didn't see the beauty in our islands anymore, and in life," Makekau's mother, Kalena Dougher, said Thursday. She was on a spur-of-the-moment road trip to Hana when she got the call Wednesday from her Honolulu attorney Michael Livingston about the ruling. "The island is beautiful because I can let my son rest. That's what it's about - finding peace and beauty in life again.
"It's very bittersweet," she said. "There's nothing that can bring him back."
Cardoza issued the decision after hearing evidence during a 30-day bench trial in the summer of 2008.
The judge awarded $1.9 million in damages to Makekau's mother, his estate and the estate of his late father, Robert Makekau. Damages of more than $1.1 million were awarded to Callo's estate and her mother, Annette Callo, and $250,000 in damages were awarded to Romena.
The court concluded that "it should have been foreseeable to the state that having invited vehicles to be driven upon the accident scene that the unmortared stacked-rock wall would eventually give way and a vehicle would inadvertently go off the edge of the horizontal plane at the highway remnant where the subject accident occurred, causing death to the occupants of that vehicle."