Maui wildfires prompt lawsuits against power companies
Plaintiffs claim Hawaiian Electric contributed to the massive deadly blaze that consumed nearly all of Maui’s historic Lahaina town by leaving their power lines energized despite high winds.
by Candace Cheung, Court House News, August 14, 2023
HONOLULU (CN) — Less than a week after wind-whipped wildfires ravaged the island of Maui, several residents sued a Hawaii electric utility Saturday claiming that the damage to the island could have been mitigated if the utility had taken preventative measures and immediate action about their downed power lines during the disaster.
Residents filed two class actions claiming Hawaiian Electric Company and its subsidiary Maui Electric Company negligently kept power lines energized while the wildfires burned down Lahaina, a town in West Maui known for its well-preserved 19th century buildings and multitude of art galleries and restaurants. A third lawsuit hit the dockets Monday.
Officials have yet to determine the cause of the fires, and rescue and recovery efforts in Lahaina continued Monday. State representatives have confirmed 99 deaths as of Monday, with only a quarter of the area searched. The Lahaina wildfire is already considered one of the deadliest wildfires in the U.S. in a century.
Three separate brushfires started last Tuesday on Maui, with heavy gusts from Hurricane Dora fanning the flames near a Lahaina neighborhood into an inferno. As of Monday, the Lahaina fire was 85% contained and other fires throughout the island have yet to be contained as well. Tropical Storm Greg is currently on track to follow Hurricane Dora's path, though meteorologists do not expect its winds will be as strong.
According to a class action filed in Oahu Circuit Court by Maui homeowners Monica and Rede Eder, Hawaiian Electric has known about the area's fire risk for years. West Maui is notedly drier than other parts of the state, a condition exacerbated by climate change, and the area has also become overrun by flammable non-native vegetation.
According to the plaintiffs, investigations and reports from various entities had indicated concern about the combination of hurricane winds and fire for years before. They cited 2018’s Hurricane Lane and its winds, which researchers linked to brush fires on Maui and Oahu.
“Defendants had specific knowledge of the risk of wildfire on Maui. HEI submitted a 2022 request for funding from the public utilities commission to offset the $189.7 million HEI would need to spend to bolster its power grid statewide, which included wildfire prevention measures,” the plaintiffs say in their lawsuit.
The Eders are represented by Honolulu-based firm LippSmith LLP as well as several California firms, Robertson & Associates and Foley Bezek Behle & Curtis, who also represented California environmentalists suing over Southern California’s 2018 Woolsey Fire.
Maui resident Nova Burnes, represented by Oahu based firms Revere & Associates, Law Office of Richard E. Wilson LLC and Law Office of Kyle Smith, also filed a similar class action Saturday in Maui Circuit Court.
Both suits claim that Hawaiian Electric not only had prior knowledge of the island’s fire risk, but also of the impending hurricane winds, which reportedly reached up to 60 to 70 miles per hour in some parts of the state. Both suit reference National Weather Service's high wind and fire warning for the state ahead of the infernos.
“As Dora’s winds began buffeting Maui, on information and belief, wind-blown trees and branches predictably broke defendant’s electric lines, causing fires to start and spread throughout Lahaina and Kula destroying homes, businesses and leaving a wake of death, devastation, and destruction in the affected areas,” Burnes said in their suit. Officials reported roughly 30 downed utility poles on the day of the fire, which also blocked many of the routes in and out of West Maui.
The Eder lawsuit also claims that the utility failed to implement Public Safety Power Shutoffs despite knowing about how fire-prone Maui could become. According to the lawsuit, Public Safety Power Shutoffs have been used in California for years to prevent wildfires. They cite a press release by Hawaiian Electric in 2018 where the utility says it would be working on wildfire mitigation planning, and had “evaluated the wildfire mitigation plans filed by the major utilities in California and studied Hawaii fire ignition maps to determine where the greatest risks are and to provide a basis for planning.”
Residents in both suits claim keeping the power lines energized during the fires intensified the fire and allowed it to grow to eventually destroy most of Lahaina town.
"By failing to shut off the power during these dangerous fire conditions, defendants caused loss of life, serious injuries, destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses, displacement of thousands of people, and damage to many of Hawai‘i’s historic and cultural sites,” the Eders say in their lawsuit.
Both suits include claims for negligence and nuisance and ask for property damages. Other similar litigation is anticipated as the full picture of the destruction of Lahaina is revealed. Authorities estimate over 2,700 buildings have been destroyed, amounting to equaling billions of dollars in damages.
Burnes claims neither the state nor the county had activated their emergency sirens, a system put in place to warn residents of, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, “tsunamis, hurricanes, dam breaches, flooding, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, terrorist threats, hazardous material incidents, and more.” Burnes also names the county of Hawaii in the suit.
The state attorney general announced last week that the department would be launching an investigation into the “critical decision-making” and lack of warning sirens.
Hawaiian Electric — which supplies power to all the Hawaiian Islands except Kauai, which uses its own electricity cooperative — addressed the allegations in a conference Monday.
Hawaii Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura said that the company intends to investigate the claims, and that it will cooperate with the state's investigation as well.
In response to questions about possible power shutoff plans, Kimura said, "We, like most utilities, don't have that program. And it's worth nothing that even in places where this has been used it is controversial and is not universally accepted. It can be seen as creating a hardship for those customers that have medical needs and those that are higher risk."
Kimura also said that the program would require cooperation from first responders. She noted that the water pumps in Lahaina that were needed for fighting the fires are powered by Hawaiian Electric power.
"There are choices that need to be made and all of those factors play into it. so every utility will look at that depending on the situation," she said.
Hawaiian Electric’s stock plunged 34% following the suits on Saturday, according to Bloomberg News and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Hawaiian Electric also announced Sunday that power had been restored to more than 60% of Maui customers who have been without power since Tuesday.
TIME: Why Hawaiian Electric Faces a Lawsuit After Maui Wildfires | Time