‘Lava bomb’ incident triggers multiple lawsuits

  • This screen grab from a video posted on social media by a passenger aboard the lava tour boat "Hot Spot" on July 16, 2018, shows lava entry from the boat just prior to the explosion.

The family of an Illinois woman seriously injured last July when a “lava bomb” tore through the roof of a tour boat off Kapoho is suing the tour company and its owner in state court.

Meanwhile, the tour company filed its own federal lawsuit seeking to exonerate or limit itself from liability from claims arising from the incident, which reportedly injured 23 passengers.

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Jessica Tilton, who was 20 and on a lava boat tour with family members on July 16 when the rock, estimated at between a foot and 2 feet in diameter, broke her thigh bone, tibia and pelvis and left her with other injuries that required her to undergo three surgeries at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu.

The family said in court filings her medical expenses are “in excess of $400,000.”

“She is expected to continue accruing additional medical expenses for the foreseeable future,” a federal court document states.

The others who were injured suffered minor burns and scrapes.

The incident — which occurred during Kilauea volcano’s lower East Rift Zone eruption that destroyed more than 700 homes in lower Puna — received international media attention. Tilton told reporters from her Honolulu hospital bed on July 31 she thought the boat edged “too close for comfort” to the lava, and after the fiery rock struck her, “I thought I was dying.”

Honolulu attorneys Rick Fried and Patrick McTernan filed the state suit on Tilton’s behalf, with her parents, Rob and Teresa Tilton, and her twin sisters, who were 15 at the time and are identified only by their initials as additional plaintiffs.

The defendants in the complaint, filed Jan. 17 in Hilo District Court, are Lava Ocean Tours Inc. and Shane Turpin, who is listed on the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs as the only officer of the corporation, and the captain of the boat “Hot Spot” when the incident occurred.

The Tiltons’ suit accuses Lava Ocean Tours and Turpin of negligence in piloting the sightseeing boat too close for safety to the lava ocean entry and not adequately warning potential passengers of the tour’s potential hazards.

According to the suit, Turpin had applied for and was granted permission to navigate his vessels inside a 300-meter safety zone from lava ocean entry points the U.S. Coast Guard had established to protect people and vessels from exploding molten rock. The Coast Guard warned Turpin, however, that by entering the safety zone, Turpin and Lava Ocean Tours “assume any and all risks and liabilities associated therewith, including but not limited to: injury, death and damage to persons or property.”

Turpin told the Associated Press in July he was about 250 yards from the lava ocean entry and was in the process of leaving the zone when the explosion occurred.

The plaintiffs allege that for more than a year before the incident, the Coast Guard and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory had warned Turpin and Lava Ocean Tours “that lava has a propensity to explode when it flows into cool ocean waters, and that historical data in Hawaii showed such explosions had been known to hurl lava rocks as much as a meter wide across distances as great as 250 meters.

“Nevertheless, Turpin and (Lava Ocean Tours) continued to take their tours much closer than 250 meters to lava entry points, thereby gambling with their passengers’ health and safety and exposing passengers to the risk of exactly the kind of explosion that occurred,” a document states.

Lava Ocean Tours is represented by Honolulu attorneys Normand Lezy, Michael Nakano, Duane Miyashiro and Jamie Madriaga, who filed the federal suit seeking to limit the company’s liability to $300,000, the assessed value of the “Hot Spot.”

The tour company’s suit, filed Jan. 16 in U.S. District Court in Honolulu, called the incident “an unforeseeable offshore submarine volcanic event … which occurred without warning” and added, “any injuries, damages and/or losses resulting … or otherwise arising out of the aforementioned voyage were neither caused nor contributed to, by any fault, negligence or neglect on the part of” Lava Ocean Tours.

It also alleges “that any claimants were themselves negligent in and about the matters alleged in any related claims or actions” against Lava Ocean Tours.

The Tiltons’ lawyers have filed a motion to dismiss the tour company’s complaint. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for 9:45 a.m. April 26 before U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi in Honolulu.

The motion includes written testimony by Turpin to the Coast Guard in opposition to the lava safety zone, dated June 2, 2017, in which he said, in part, “During my time at the lava flows I have never experienced a moment where I felt unsafe or threatened. … Lava tour boats are not alone there are many operations who provide extreme boat tours whether you want to go jet boating river rapids, cruise up next to glaciers, go big wave surfing or speeding across the water on a high-speed adventure.”

In a supporting document, Robert Tilton said he was “given no warning about any risk that the lava we would be seeing might explode or possibly injure us in some other way.”

“I had my three daughters with me. Two of them were young teens,” Tilton said. “I would never have taken on this trip … if I had been warned that the lava could explode.”

McTernan declined to comment Friday. Turpin referred the Tribune-Herald to his attorneys. Lezy declined to comment.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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