March 19, 2012 8:00 PM

State of Hawaii Agrees to Pay $15.4 Million to Settle Suit Over Gibson Dunn Partner’s 2006 Hiking Death

Posted by Brian Baxter

Elizabeth Warke Brem, a former partner in Gibson, Dunn Crutcher‘s Orange County office in Irvine, California, died more than five years ago in a hiking accident on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Brem’s cousin Paula Ramirez was killed in the same tragic mishap during their vacation to the island paradise in December 2006.

With the state of Hawaii having already been found liable for the women’s deaths—and with a civil trial on damages set to start this week—Hawaiian officials agreed Friday to pay the victims’ families $15.4 million in what one lawyer connected to the case says is the largest personal injury settlement in state history.

Mark Davis, a name partner at Honolulu’s Davis Levin Levingston, and a team of lawyers from his firm are representing the Warke and Brem families, who sued the Hawaiian government following the deaths of Brem, 35, of Encinitas, California, and Ramirez, 29, of Bogota, Colombia.

Elizabeth Brem

The women died while hiking a trail to picturesque â€˜Opaeka’a Falls in Kauai’s Waialua River State Park in the week before Christmas. Encountering a fork in the trail—and seeing a sign to the left warning hikers to keep out—Brem (pictured right) and Ramirez took an unmarked path to the right that lead them to a steep cliff covered in heavy vegetation. The two plummeted 300 feet to their deaths.

In its defense, the state argued that the sign the women saw, which read, “Danger—Keep Out—Hazardous conditions,” was intended as a general warning to keep people from hiking too close to the waterfall, and specifically to halt them from making the risky climb down to the pool at the base of the cliff.

But Davis, assisted by associates Erin Davis and Loretta Sheehan, and Hawaiian solo practitioner Teresa Tico, who is representing Ramirez’s family, claimed the state’s signage was inadequate and the absence of a corresponding warning sign or fence on the right side of the trail essentially steered the cousins to their death.

A circuit court judge in Lihue, Kauai ruled almost a year ago this month that the Hawaiian government was indeed liable for the deaths of Brem and Ramirez. (Click here for the 44-page ruling by Judge Kathleen Watanabe.)

Davis says that many sightseers and nature lovers visit Waialua River State Park every year, and that the falls have long been a popular destination for back country hikers. Prior to the accident involving Brem and Ramirez, whose sudden deaths made headlines across state and suburban San Diego, Davis says there were several incidents involving other hikers, including one in which a person who fell from the same cliff only survived because he landed in the canopy of a tree about 200 feet below.

Brem’s death, Davis says, was a senseless end to an inspiring life.

“Elizabeth was a highly accomplished lawyer,” Davis says. “She grew up in the Bronx as the daughter of a Colombian immigrant, attended the Bronx High School of Science, graduated at the top of her class at Barnard, where she was valedictorian, and went on to Yale Law School.”

While in law school, Brem served as senior editor of the Yale Law Review before taking a job in 1996 at Gibson Dunn. Almost a decade later, in September 2005, the firm made her a full equity partner—a promotion that qualified her as the first female Hispanic lawyer to make partner at Gibson Dunn in Irvine.

Davis says the firm was instrumental in providing financial documents necessary to prove Brem’s future earning capacity had she survived and continued to provide for her family and two sons. Davis, who was gearing up to provide his opening arguments in the damages phase of the civil case on Monday, provided The Am Law Daily with an outline of his prepared remarks.

“[T]he career trajectory of someone like Ms. Brem working at a huge firm such as Gibson Dunn is entirely different and the career path of successful equity partners is clear and thoughtfully designed by the management of the firm,” Davis wrote in that ultimately undelivered opening argument. “The firm pays its partners very well. The firm has a retirement system that really only pays off if the partner stays, over the long term after a career with the firm. Partners are compensated more each year of their partnership by the issuance of additional partnership shares. The entire compensation system is designed to have partners stay at the firm for their entire career and there are financial penalties for leaving early.”

In addition to sons Aidan and Ryan—who were 5 years and 9 months old, respectively, at the time of their mother’s death—Brem was survied by her husband, Monte Brem. A former Gibson Dunn lawyer himself, Monte Brem—who proposed to his future wife while on a trip to Hawaii seven years before her death—is now the CEO of private equity firm the StepStone Group after moving from Southern California to Beijing in 2010, according to the Asian Venture Capital Journal.

Gibson Dunn declined to comment on the civil litigation initiated by Brem’s family, but did note that the firm provided a $100,000 gift in its former partner’s memory to help establish a scholarship fund at Yale Law School for Hispanic women students with financial needs.

“Liz’s life and career were tragically cut short in a terrible accident,” Gibson Dunn managing partner Kenneth Doran said in a statement provided to The Am Law Daily. “The scholarship continues to honor Liz’s memory by providing assistance to students who are following in her footsteps.”

Davis says Hawaii’s state legislature must still approve the settlement, noting that the body’s judiciary committee is expected to take up the matter sometime in the next few days. About $15 million of the settlement value is to go to Brem’s estate, Davis says, while $425,000 is earmarked for Ramirez’s family. If lawmakers fail to approve the agreement, he adds, the damages phase of the trial will be rescheduled.

Hawaiian lawyer James Kawashima represented the state government in the litigation, according to the Hawaii Reporter, which notes that the state’s liability insurance carrier will pick up a significant portion of the final settlement, though it recently stopped covering Kawashima’s fees. The state attorney general’s office has since rehired Kawashima.

As for â€˜Opaeka’a Falls, the trail that claimed the lives of Brem and Ramirez has since been fenced off, although an overlook now exists that provides a safe viewing area for visitors.

Photo: Elizabeth Warke Brem, courtesy of Gibson, Dunn Crutcher

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