From potholes to police actions, Hawaii County paid out more than $104,000 last year in small claims to people saying they suffered damage from something the county did.
That’s according to an analysis of small claims reported to the County Council by county civil attorneys for the 2019 calendar year. Small claims are those of $10,000 or less and must be reported quarterly to the County Council.
In addition, the county paid $212,472 in larger claims and $62,500 in litigating lawsuits during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2019, the latest figures available.
All of that pales in comparison, however, to the $15.1 million paid to the family of a cyclist fatally struck by an on-duty Hawaii Police Department officer in 2015 that was settled last August. The case was brought by relatives of 69-year-old Jeffrey Surnow, who died March 1, 2015, after a wreck involving former police officer Jody Buddemeyer on Waikoloa Road.
Surnow was a Michigan real estate executive who founded a company that manages properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars. His potential earnings would have exceeded the settlement amount, family attorneys said. Most of the settlement proceeds were expected to go to a charitable foundation set up by the Surnow family, according to The Associated Press.
Two other civil lawsuits last year brought in minor amounts.
One was filed by Nikita Nakamoto, alleging the Hilo officers who shot and killed her husband and injured her used excessive force. She sought damages for herself and her two minor children, one of whom is the natural child of her late husband, Ronald Barawis Jr. The county paid her $10,000.
A civil rights lawsuit filed by the late Lanric Hyland over tenant rights in Section 8 housing at Ainakea Senior Residences in Kapaau netted his estate $7,500. He died Sept. 6, 2018. The case was settled Oct. 23, 2018, according to federal court records.
Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela said the county weighs claims carefully before deciding whether to pay them. Claims over $10,000 require County Council approval, while smaller claims are decided in-house.
“We have people that file lawsuits, people that file claims, that have no merit,” Kamelamela said Wednesday.
Smaller claims include one filed by Pamela Lou Spencer, alleging she tripped and fell over a tree stump on Alii Drive, suffering injury. The county paid her $5,000.
County vehicles striking their vehicles were among the most common claims filed.
Tree branches and roots also caused damages to cars and homes. Paul Carbonel, of PKC Yard Service in Kailua-Kona, was paid $6,068.94 for damage from a tree branch. Vivian Ueyama, of Hilo, netted $459.79 for damage to hers from a tree branch.
And then, of course, there are potholes. Only two hapless individuals were paid for pothole damage last year: Jerry Hirata of Kona was paid $404.76 for tire damage, while William Nihi was paid $107.82.
Not as many pothole cases as one would anticipate, but that’s because there aren’t that many potholes, at least from the county’s perspective.
“Those potholes usually get fixed pretty quickly,” Kamelamela said.
Drivers can report potholes and other problems on county roads at the website https://www.hawaiicounty.gov/departments/public-works/highways-division/report-problems.
This article has been corrected to state that Jerry Hirata of Kona was paid $404.76 for tire damage. The wrong town was listed in the original version.