HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - More than four years after two hikers fell to their deaths near Opaeka'a Falls on Kauai, a judge has ruled the state "totally" at fault. Cousins Elizabeth Brem and Paula Ramirez were following signs along the hiking trail when, the judge says, they were literally led down the wrong path.
Opaeka'a Falls in Waialua River state park is one of those iconic Hawaiian sites in many guidebooks. Lush greenery. Silky waterfalls. A week before Christmas, 2006, the 35-year-old Brem and her 29-year-old cousin wanted to see that beauty for themselves.
"When they arrived at the clearing, they saw two trails - one to the left and one to right," says Brem family attorney, Erin Davis.
A sign at the entrance to the left read, "Danger. Keep out. Hazardous conditions". The state put the sign up to keep visitors from climbing down to the well-known falls. But it didn't put warning signs, fencing or barriers along the right trail. Family lawyers say the two women assumed the path to the falls went right. Instead, it went to the edge of a cliff - where they fell 300 feet to their deaths. Lawyers blame the state for misleading them.
Brem family attorney, Loretta Sheehan, says "They essentially created a trap, and they made a situation far more dangerous than it was originally."
Kauai circuit court judge Kathleen Watanabe ruled the state is completely at fault – saying employees put visitors at greater risk by erecting the sign than if they had done nothing at all. Lawyers also pointed to a 2003 memo from a park employee advising the state to close access to the falls. It read, "We do not want someone to fall down or cross the stream and fall over the falls".
Davis says, "They were notified of a danger. They were notified of a risk, and they didn't do any sort of risk assessment." Since the deaths, the state HAS put up signs and fencing along both paths.
Elizabeth Brem was a Yale law school grad who went on to become the first Latina partner at her firm near San Diego. Her husband is CEO of an investment service company who's since moved his family to Beijing. Their two young sons will now have to grow up without their mother.
"It's been a very, very tough thing for everybody in the family," says Mark Davis of Davis, Levin, Livingston Attorneys. "They were close-knit family."
The Department of Land and Natural Resources - which oversees the state's parks - had no comment about the negligence and wrongful death lawsuit or the ruling. A second trial has yet to be scheduled to determine the amount of damages the state will pay out through its insurance company.