County settles lawsuit over Punaluu drowning

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HILO — Hawaii County has closed the book on a negligence lawsuit stemming from a 2008 honeymoon tragedy at Punaluu Black Sand Beach.

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HILO — Hawaii County has closed the book on a negligence lawsuit stemming from a 2008 honeymoon tragedy at Punaluu Black Sand Beach.

The County Council in executive session Tuesday agreed to pay Catherine Sneyers, of Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., $20,000 to settle the lawsuit after she appealed 3rd Circuit Court Judge Glenn S. Hara’s Feb. 6 ruling dismissing the case. Hara ruled the county had no duty to post signs warning of dangerous rip currents on private property near the county-managed beach, according to court transcripts.

Sneyers’ husband, Edward R. McCarthy-Slaughter, 40, drowned in high surf while snorkeling with his wife about 100 yards offshore. They had entered the water near the concession area, which is not owned by the county.

Sneyers, represented by Honolulu attorney John Edmunds, said the county had a duty to place surf warning signs there because it had apparently posted signs at that spot telling beachgoers not to take sand from the beach and to keep a distance from the turtles.

She sued for negligence, wrongful death and loss of spousal and parental consortium, seeking unspecified damages that could have exceeded $1 million, according to attorneys in the case.

The county had posted warning signs on the county property itself and had already planned to add a lifeguard stand to the beach before McCarthy-Slaughter drowned.

Edmunds said Friday his client agreed to settle the lawsuit rather than have it drag on. He said he gave up his fees and accepted reimbursement for only a fraction of the costs because his client is the sole supporter of two children.

“I believe strongly in this case, but it is a very difficult case on appeal,” Edmunds said.

The lower court judge had dismissed the case on a motion for summary judgment, rather than have the case proceed through trial. Hara agreed the county had a duty to warn beachgoers of strong currents and other dangerous conditions adjacent to the beach park. But that duty stopped at the property lines, he said.

“Once you have a danger adjacent to that beach park, it gives rise to the duty to warn,” Hara said at the Feb. 6 hearing, according to transcripts. “(If I am the county), and — and let’s say there are dangerous conditions all along that coast, how far down do I have to warn people, you know, you can’t go swimming two miles down, mile-and-a-half down from this park?”

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Deputy Corporation Counsel Laureen Martin said Friday that settling the case was a prudent action.

“Although the county was hopeful it would prevail on appeal, there is no guarantee that it would have,” Martin said. “There are also potential weaknesses in the case, which warranted consideration of a reasonable settlement. Ultimately, this settlement avoided significant risks and uncertainty. The amount is also far less than the costs the county would have incurred in order to defend the action.”

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