Maui County sues Hawaiian Electric over Lahaina fires
The county casts blame on the power utility for igniting and exacerbating the wildfire that has been called the worst natural disaster in Hawaii history.
by Candace Cheung, Court House News, August 25, 2023
HAWAII (CN) — The County of Maui is the latest to file a lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric for the power utility’s role in the devastating wildfires in West Maui that consumed nearly all of the historic town of Lahaina and claimed the lives of at least 100 people.
Maui County claimed in a lawsuit filed Thursday in Maui Circuit Court that Hawaiian Electric and its subsidiaries, the Maui Electric Company, Hawaii Electric Light Company and Hawaiian Electric Industries, negligently maintained its power lines, allowing the Aug. 8 wildfires to grow to consume over 3000 acres of land on Maui.
The county seeks damages for the loss of its natural resources and public lands, along with the costs of emergency operations, like shelters, evacuations, and fire suppression services. Maui also seeks to hold the utility liable for visitor and commercial industry losses, the compromising of its public infrastructure and water contamination.
The county further said that the utility ignored warnings of high winds and increased fire risk from the National Weather Service, and that it failed to deenergize their power lines as wildfires were whipped into an inferno by winds up to 70 miles per hour coming from Hurricane Dora as it passed south of the state.
“Defendants knew that the high winds the NWS predicted would topple power poles, knock down power lines, and ignite vegetation. Defendants also knew that if their overhead electrical equipment ignited a fire, it would spread at a critically rapid rate,” Maui County said in its suit.
Federal agents have been dispatched to the island to investigate the cause of the fires, though no official cause has been determined yet. Speculation for the cause, though, has revolved around Hawaiian Electric’s power lines. It was reported that around 30 power lines had been knocked down in the winds, with some of them blocking routes out of Lahaina.
In its suit, Maui County also condemns Hawaiian Electric for not implementing any protocol for downed, but still energized, power lines.
“Defendants also knew that their overhead electrical infrastructure did not use available technologies to mitigate fire risk, including non-expulsion fuses, covered conductors, underground power lines, composite power poles, and fiberglass and other non-wood materials,” the county wrote.
The county said that many of the utilities facilities and power lines were unmaintained, and that Hawaiian Electric should have taken steps to update their system to be better prepared for fire risk, which environmentalists have warned about as increased climate change effects will continue to exacerbate natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes. The county's suit contained claims of negligence, nuisance, trespass and ultrahazardous activity against Hawaiian Electric.
According to Maui County, the utility ought to have implemented a “Public Safety Power Shutoff” procedure long before the fires. Several Southern California utilities have employed similar programs to mitigate wildfires.
In its suit, the county cites a 2019 press release from Hawaiian Electric that mentions the possibility of such programs but say that the utility ultimately never went anywhere with the plan.
According to Hawaiian Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura, in a Aug.14 press conference, the utility has not adapted the “controversial” Public Safety Power Shutoffs out of concern for medical equipment and county water pumps that need electricity to operate.
Hawaiian Electric has declined to comment on any of the pending litigation it faces from Maui County and from individual Maui residents.
The county is represented by the county’s corporation counsel and Honolulu law firm Cronin, Fried, Sekiya, Kekina & Fairbanks, along with California-based firms Baron & Budd and Diab Chambers, who also represent Maui residents in their individual suits against the utility.
Eleven other suits, including two class actions, blaming Hawaiian Electric for its role in the fires have been filed in the several weeks since wildfires by Maui residents who lost their homes and loved ones in the blaze. Similar suits are anticipated to be filed as state and federal agencies continue recovery efforts in Lahaina and release more information on the damages. The death toll is currently at 115, and thousands remain unaccounted for.
The county’s suit also addressed two other fires in Upcountry Maui that started on the same day as the Lahaina wildfires, but didn't reach the same level of devastation. The Olinda and the Kula fires, the county said, had reportedly also been started by Hawaiian Electric's power lines and then kicked into high gear from with hurricane winds and particularly dry conditions.
Maui County said in a statement Thursday that the Olinda and Kula fires were at around 85% containment with occasional flareups. The Lahaina fire is now estimated to be 90% contained.
Maui County and other state officials and entities have also faced their own share of criticism for the response during and after the fires.
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8-24 County of Maui files lawsuit against HECO for civil damages caused by recent Maui fires
News Release from Office of the Mayor, August 24, 2023
Today, the County of Maui filed a lawsuit against Maui Electric Company, Limited, Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc., Hawaiʻi Electric Light Company, Inc., and Hawaiian Electric Industries, Inc. for civil damages caused to the County’s public property and resources caused by recent Maui fires, including fires in Lāhainā and in Kula. The lawsuit was filed in the Second Circuit Court and the case number is 2CCV-23-0000238.
The lawsuit alleges that the Defendants acted negligently by failing to power down their electrical equipment despite a National Weather Service Red Flag Warning on August 7th. The lawsuit further alleges HECO’s energized and downed power lines ignited dry fuel such as grass and brush, causing the fires. The lawsuit also alleges failure to maintain the system and power grid, which caused the systemic failures starting three different fires on August 8th.
Maui County stands alongside the people and communities of Lāhainā and Kula to recover public resource damages and rebuild after these devastating utility-caused fires. These damages include losses to public infrastructure, fire response costs, losses to revenues, increased costs, environmental damages, and losses of historical or cultural landmarks.
HECO is a for-profit, investor-owned utility that trades publicly on the New York Stock Exchange serving 95% of the Hawai’i customer base.
The fires in Lāhainā and Kula burned over 3,000 acres and destroyed more than 2,200 structures, causing an estimated $5.5 billion in damage or more.
The County is represented by Corporation Counsel Victoria J. Takayesu, Deputy Corporation Counsel Thomas Kolbe, and by outside counsel John Fiske of Baron & Budd, P.C., Ed Diab of Diab Chambers, LLP, and L. Richard Fried of Cronin, Fried, Sekiya, Kekina & Fairbanks. Baron & Budd and Diab Chambers have been selected by public entities 95 times to recover civil damages in wildfire cases.
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