By Debra Barayug from the Honolulu Advertiser
HONOLULU – A state judge has awarded a $3.7 million judgment to blind vendors for the state’s failure to collect monies from vending machines on county property for two decades.
The amount of damages owed to the blind vendors was the remaining issue in dispute at a four-day trial in August before Circuit Judge Elizabeth E. Hifo.
Blind vendors, who operate the news and sundries stands in most government buildings, rely on the monies as a source of funding for pension and health benefits.
Blind vendors do not work for the state, and the state’s failure to collect reduced their pension and health benefits, according to Evan Shirley, one of the attorneys representing the vendors.
In a press release, Shirley said the award was a great victory.
“To be blind and to have the trustee of your retirement and health benefits squander your retirement and health benefits away is unconscionable,” Shirley said.
The state attorney general could not be reached for immediate comment.
Jeannette Tu, who has run the Circuit Court snack shop for 23 years, said she is happy they won the case.
“It will allow for me to get a retirement plan,” she said.
David Cameron, who operates the vending stand at the state Capitol, said the amount of the judgment is less than what the blind vendors were asking for, but he was pleased with the outcome.
“Any accomplishment is better than nothing,” he said.
Cameron, who has been following the issue, said the state could have followed the city’s lead in settling the case.
“They could have settled this a long time ago,” he said.
The state Department of Human Services collects money from the vending machines in state buildings, but had not been collecting the money from county buildings in Oahu, Maui, Hawaii and Kauai counties.
Circuit Judge Linda Luke ruled in March that the state’s failure to collect from vending machines in the counties was a serious breach of its trust and fiduciary duties.
The blind uncovered a “conspiracy of silence” that was encouraged by state officials not to collect from vending machines on government property, Shirley said in his prepared statement.
Evidence introduced at trial showed the actual amount of damages from 1981 through July 2000 was about $3.8 million.
The court deducted a $150,000 settlement with the city, reducing the award to about $3.7 million.
More important, however, was relief the court granted to ensure the state’s misconduct does not happen again, said Stanley Levin, who also represented the blind vendors.
“Hopefully, this judgment will mark a new day in the treatment of blind vendors by the state,” he said in a written statement.
There are 38 blind vendors who were represented in the class-action suit against the state; the Department of Human Services; Susan Chandler, Human Services Director and other state officials.
Reporter Crystal Kua also contributed to this story.
Besides the money…
In addition to awarding blind vendors nearly $3.7 million plus attorneys’ fees and costs, the state must:
• Hire a qualified investment adviser.
• Provide each blind vendor quarterly and annual reports.
• Develop a 10-year investment plan.
• Prepare a retirement and health. plan.
• Retain a vending-machine expert to develop and expand the vending-machine program and increase revenues.
Source: Evan Shirley, attorney for blind vendors