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$328M settlement approved in breach of trust lawsuit with Hawaiian homes beneficiaries

Department of Hawaiian Home Lands
Department of Hawaiian Home Lands

Hawaiʻi lawmakers have approved a $328 million settlement to all claims by Hawaiian Home Lands beneficiaries who filed suit against the state for breach of trust.

After more than two decades of litigation, including two trials and two appeals to the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court, the Legislature accepted the Attorney General’s recommendation to settle.

The class-action lawsuit known as Kalima v. State involves 2,700 Native Hawaiian beneficiaries who filed suit in 1999, including about 1,000 who died without receiving any relief.

The lawsuit stems from a 1991 law allowing Native Hawaiians to file claims against the state for losses incurred while waiting for a homestead lease from 1959 to 1988. The Legislature created a panel to address claims but the existence of the panel wasn't extended past 1999. So the plaintiffs sued.

Plaintiff Leona Kalima said the settlement will change thousands of lives for the better.

Senate Bill 3041, which appropriates hundreds of millions of dollars from the general fund for the settlement, was approved Tuesday in conference committee.

The Legislature must now approve the funds for the settlement and then a Circuit Court judge must sign off on its terms for it to be final.

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke called the vote historic.

"As you know we have had unprecedented revenue this year and that really prompted the discussion between the state and the claimants to come to a resolution to ensure that we get to this point to take care of 2,700 individuals who have been waiting on the waitlist," Luke said.

"And to come to a resolution in such a huge commitment is such a huge effort. So mahalo to everyone on this conference committee, especially the claimants who’ve been waiting a very, very long time," she said.

Honolulu attorney Carl Varady, along with Tom Grande, is co-counsel in the Kalima case.

"It means that after two decades of litigation that they finally are going to obtain compensation for the benefits of homesteading that they were denied during that two-decade period and before. It's very important, although it is late in coming, and for many of them who are kūpuna and certainly for them who have passed, it will be a benefit to their family members," Varady told HPR.

Varady said it could take plaintiffs at least a year to receive compensation.

He said the claims administrator will now gather data on each client’s claims, including when they applied for a homestead, when they received one, and when they passed.

"That generally will define the period of damages, and once those dates are known, the damages for each applicant will be calculated individually on that basis. Then once the calculation of damages are reviewed and approved by the court, there will be a final fairness hearing, then people will then receive their compensation," he said. "We will make sure that as many people get as much as possible to compensate them toward the breaches of trust."

Raynette Ah Chong, whose father Joseph Ching died during the litigation, said she and other plaintiffs were thankful for the result.

Gov. David Ige said despite the settlement, he remains committed to developing and delivering homes for Native Hawaiian beneficiaries.

Under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920, those with at least 50% Hawaiian blood quantum can apply for a 99-year lease for $1 a year. An estimated 28,000 people are on the waitlist.

Class members or relatives of deceased class members may get more information by visiting www.kalima-lawsuit.com. The Associated Press reporter Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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