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Dangers and Liability of Hawaii's Public Lands and Trails


Although most are not aware of it, the state of Hawaii is liable for injuries sustained on public land. The liability even extends to publicly owned trails where people walk, run, bike and perform other activities that require significant physical exertion. The burden to keep these spaces safe for public use is squarely on the state. If the state neglects this responsibility, it can be held legally responsible for the injuries sustained by those traversing these spaces. Numerous victims have leaned on premises liability laws to sue Hawaii, as well as other state governments, after suffering injuries in public areas.

State Government’s Legal Responsibilities

The state of Hawaii is required to maintain its public spaces and fix hazards in these areas to make them safe for public use. If it is not possible to fix a certain hazard, the state must be proactive and fulfill its legal obligation to warn people that a potential danger exists. If the state fails to ensure the public’s safety on publicly held land, the state will be held liable for all damages and expenses that pertain to the injury. The costs and damages include but are not limited to medical expenses, prescription costs, physical therapy costs, lost wages and even the injured party’s loss of future earning capacity.

State is Looking for a Way Out

The state of Hawaii has closed numerous hiking and climbing spaces as a result of its responsibility to ensure that a safe environment is maintained. The state has paid out numerous settlements, one of which topped the $20 million mark for failing to maintain safe hiking trails and other publicly owned spaces. However, Senate Bill #SB1007 (HD1) was put up for reconsideration by Hawaii’s 2014 legislature in an effort to decrease the state’s level of liability. It is designed to give the state some protection when it comes to natural hazards and certain natural landscape formations that are out of its control. These include loose rocks, steep cliffs and strong water currents. Its language even provides the state with protection for certain non-natural hazards including unsanctioned trails, biking tracks, ramps and paragliding launch zones.

Yet the state has failed to obtain adequate liability protection. As a result, numerous hiking trails, climbing spaces and other beautiful natural landscapes have been closed. This is a gross miscarriage of justice. The public lands are maintained with tax dollars so they should always be accessible to taxpaying citizens. State officials should not be empowered to determine where the public is allowed to go, when they can access these spaces and how they can use them. Rather, the state should uphold its legal responsibility to keep these public spaces safe and available at all times. The public’s accessibility to Hawaii’s remarkable natural wonders should never be determined by a state government liability risk assessment.

Hawaii Must Uphold its Duty to Maintain the Safety of Public Land

When compared to other states, especially those located in the west, Hawaii’s recreational liability statutes come up woefully short. Most other states are not as vulnerable to litigation that often results in substantial awards to parties who have suffered injuries in public spaces. The state of Hawaii is rightfully liable for any injury suffered on land that it is legal responsible to maintain. While other states tend to place the burden of safety on those who traverse public areas, the Hawaiian government bears much of this burden for good reason. While everyone assumes a minor amount of risk by exiting their homes to engage in activities in public spaces, those who place their trust in the state to maintain the integrity of these areas should receive ample protection. Individuals who make every effort to keep themselves safe should not be punished for the state’s inability to uphold its promise to take care of publicly owned spaces or at least post highly visible warning signs that indicate the presence of danger.