Lava tour operator hit with another lawsuit

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald

    In this July 16, 2018, file photo, a police officer secures the Lava Ocean Tours boat “Hot Spot” at Wailoa Small Boat Harbor in Hilo.

A second group of mainland residents who were aboard a lava tour boat last July when a “lava bomb” tore through the boat’s roof is suing the tour company and the boat’s captain.

Plaintiffs in the civil suit, filed Wednesday in Hilo Circuit Court, are Erin Walsh and William D. Bryan Jr., an Oregon couple, and Californians Dawn Li — on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor son, Christopher Li — Dr. Ka Ming Li, a trauma surgeon and Dawn Li’s husband, and the couple’s adult daughter, Erica Li.

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Named as defendants are Lava Ocean Tours Inc. and Shane Turpin, captain of the lava vessel “Hot Spot,” and listed as the corporation’s only officer by the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.

Another suit was filed in Hilo Circuit Court last month by the family of Jessica Tilton, a 20-year-old Illinois woman who suffered broken bones to her leg and pelvis.

Authorities claim the blast of molten rock injured 23 individuals on July 16, 2018.

Both suits allege Turpin piloted his boat closer to the lava ocean entry points than was safe and failed to adequately warn passengers of the potential dangers of the tour.

Video taken by Bryan of the incident was viewed via social media and traditional media outlets worldwide, and the Li family spoke to national and international media, including CBS.

“We were pelted with the rocks, and it’s embedded in your scalp and everything and the heat and the steam — you could feel it,” Dawn Li told the network shortly after the incident.

Christopher Li said his leg was severely burned when the lava bomb, about the size of a basketball, smashed through the boat’s metal roof while the vessel was near Kapoho.

“I got covered in really hot rocks, and I stayed there for maybe two seconds and got third-degree blistering burns on my legs,” he told CBS.

Ka Ming Li and Dawn Li were reportedly near the front of the vessel when the incident occurred, while their children were in the back of the boat. Ka Ming Li helped attend to Jessica Tilton’s injuries as his own children also were suffering injuries, according to Clay Robbins III, a Los Angeles attorney representing this group of clients.

“The children … are not just going through the medical treatment for the burns, the parents are receiving therapy for the emotional distress they endured from watching their children being injured on a family vacation in the islands. And (Bryan) and Erin Walsh, they’re receiving treatment, as well,” Robbins said Monday.

Attorneys for Turpin filed suit in federal court seeking to exonerate him from liability or to limit his liability to $300,000, the assessed value of the “Hot Spot.” Previous court filings pegged the cost, so far, of Jessica Tilton’s medical treatment at more than $400,000.

Robbins said he thinks Lava Ocean Tour’s federal suit should be dismissed.

“The owner of the tour boat, Shane Turpin, was on board and was involved and brought this tour boat dangerously close to where the lava was flowing,” Robbins said.

According to Robbins, his clients weren’t given “appropriate warnings of the dangers associated with going out on the boats to view the lava … the lava bombs, the explosions when the lava hits the water and the explosions of the lava underneath the water.”

Robbins said he and fellow attorneys are “still in the process of evaluating” what they consider a fair settlement for their clients.

“We know that the case, at this point, hasn’t been accepted into the arbitration program, so it will remain on the trial calendar of the court,” he said.

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Normand “Chip” Lezy, a Honolulu attorney who represents Turpin, said in an email to the Tribune-Herald he “cannot comment on the pending litigation.”

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

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