Maui council moves to settle lawsuit by visitor injured on Haleakalā bike tour
Maui County Council voted recently to settle a lawsuit that claims the county was negligent in allowing an unguided, unpermitted Haleakalā bike tour that left a visitor paralyzed from the waist down.
Meanwhile, the council is working on proposed rules that would tighten regulations on the downhill bike industry, which has been riddled with resident complaints for decades.
Council voted unanimously Friday on a resolution that authorizes county lawyers to settle the claim by Jessica Harris versus local bike tour company Haleakalā Bike Co., third-party activity company Paradise Vacation Adventures, the State of Hawaiʻi and the County of Maui.
The lawsuit filed in 2020 is the first of its kind against the county, Corporation Counsel Moana Lutey said Monday.
In the early-morning hours of May 3, 2017, Harris, a California visitor, and friends were picked up from their accommodations by Haleakalā Bike Co. and dropped off with bicycles and unguided tour instructions at 6,500-foot elevation outside Haleakalā National Park, according to a recent council committee meeting.
Harris took the lead at one point on Crater Road and friends lost sight. Around the 6.5 Mile Marker, they found her lying on the shoulder of the road after apparently crashing into a guardrail.
There were no witnesses, and Harris does not remember the collision, according to Deputy Corporation Counsel Glen Pascual, who referenced the complaint in a recent committee meeting.
As a result of the incident, Harris suffered “significant injury,” including broken vertebrae, spinal cord damage, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a traumatic brain injury and was paralyzed from the waist down. Harris had more than $320,000 in medical bills and hasn’t returned to work, Pascual added.
The civil suit alleges negligence by the county and the state in failing to ensure that the bike company was suitable to operate an unguided bike-tour business through the county’s permitting process; allowing bike tours to operate on Haleakalā despite a “persistent history” of bike-related injuries and deaths there; allowing the bike company to operate without a permit as an unguided bike-tour company; and claims for indemnity or contribution, which led to injuries and damages that Harris sustained during the 2017 incident.
At the time of the incident, Haleakalā Bike Co. was only offering unguided tours, which does not require a permit as regulated under Maui County code Chapter 5.22, Pascual said. Only guided tours require permits, which carry strong insurance requirements.
If an agreement is reached, the county will include language that it does not admit responsibility. At that point, the settlement amount could be disclosed, Lutey said. The state settled for $25,000, according to the committee meeting.
Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency Committee meetings in recent months have discussed a proposed bill that would strengthen county regulations for downhill bike tours.
Changes to Chapter 5.52 under consideration include establishing elevation restrictions and other rules to address public safety, traffic and legal concerns. Discussion will resume in May after budget sessions, according to committee Chair Mike Molina.
Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura, whose residency seat covers Upcountry, said the lawsuit is another reason lawmakers must address downhill tour rules.
“This bill supports why we need to take care of our bike ordinance for guided and unguided tours,” she said in a March 22 committee meeting.
Residents in Kula, Pāʻia and Makawao have long voiced worries over the danger of guided and unguided bicycle tours on narrow, winding roadways, especially on Crater Road during high traffic hours.
At best, arguments over whether bikes or vehicles should have the right of way are debated. At worst, serious injuries and even deaths are tied to inexperienced bikers and dangerous or non-permitted companies.
Just last year, two bicyclists collided on Makawao Avenue during an April tour and a downhill-tour bicyclist lost control and fell over the bike’s handle bars on Haleakalā Highway in June, according to Maui police.