Maui County and State of Hawai'i Accused of Gross Negligence in First-of-Its-Kind Lawsuit Filed By Father of Maui Fire Victim
Complaint Filed by Bickerton Law Group LLLP and Andrews & Thornton Also Alleges Hawaiian Electric and Landowner Bishop Estate Caused the Fire that Led to the August 8th Death of Lahaina Resident Rebecca Rans and Hundreds of Others
News Release from Bickerton Law Group LLLP 05 Sep, 2023
HONOLULU, Sept. 5, 2023 /PRNewswire/ -- The County of Maui and State of Hawai'i have been named for the first time as co-defendants and landowners liable for nuisance in a civil action filed by the father of a 57-year-old woman who was tragically and suddenly killed trying to escape the fires that devastated the community of Lahaina within the County of Maui on August 8th. The complaint filed yesterday in the Circuit Court of the Second Circuit of the State of Hawai'i additionally accuses utility Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc. and its subsidiary Maui Electric Company, Limited – as well as major landowner, Bishop Estate – of facilitating the fire that destroyed the residence of Rebecca Rans, causing her to flee, cutting off her escape paths and routes, and ultimately resulting in her wrongful death.
Plaintiff Harold Dennis Wells filed the complaint individually and on behalf of all heirs of his daughter's estate. He is jointly represented by attorneys at Bickerton Law Group LLLP, a Honolulu-based firm with more than three decades of experience serving people and businesses in Hawai'i, with experience in grass-originated and grass-fed fire litigation, and Andrews & Thornton, a leading national personal injury and mass torts firm with extensive, relevant experience representing the PG&E Fire Victim Trust as litigation counsel.
"Rebecca Rans' death is all the more tragic because of how preventable it was," said James Bickerton, Founding Partner of Bickerton Law Group. "As someone who has spent nearly my entire life in Hawai'i, I have witnessed firsthand how the Island of Maui has been taken over by invasive, non-native and flammable grasses and brush vegetation. The combination of weather, uncontrolled vegetation and decaying and neglected electrical infrastructure predictably created a tinderbox ready to explode in Maui. The risk was not theoretical – it was visible, palpable and entirely avoidable."
Bickerton added: "Lahaina was an island in a sea of dry grass that should have been cut to stubble at the beginning of the summer fire season. All the landowners knew how dangerous it was to have that huge volume of dry grass next to subdivisions, and could have saved hundreds of lives at cost of less than $1,000 per acre to cut the brush down. With the fires coming in from all of their lands, people in Lahaina were encircled and their escape routes cut off."
"The apocalyptic Maui fires should never have happened," said Bridget G. Morgan-Bickerton, Managing Partner of Bickerton Law Group. "The hundreds of people who died horrific deaths in Maui last month left behind countless friends and loved ones who are still deeply mourning their loss. Their grief has been made worse by the lack of answers and accountability from County and State authorities. Our suit also asks the large landowners to remove the risk that still hangs over West Maui as large areas nearby still have great amounts of unburned grass fuel. In recent years, Hawai'i has seen a dramatic rise in grass-originated and grass-fed fires. We are steadfastly committed to protecting the interests of victims and their surviving relatives, and helping ensure the safety of our islands for future generations."
"Like Rebecca Rans and so many others, I am also a Californian who was drawn to the natural beauty of the islands of Hawai'i," said Anne Andrews, Founding Partner of Andrews & Thornton. "She made her home in Lahaina for over two decades, living in the same house, raising her family and becoming deeply rooted in Hawaiian traditions. On August 8th, her family members on the mainland grew deeply concerned after hearing about the fires burning out of control in Rebecca's community. They waited 11 long, agonizing days for confirmation of her death – something that thousands of desperate family members and friends of victims are still awaiting. The County, State, power companies, and large landowners must be held to account."
As alleged in the complaint, each of the defendants caused the fires that devastated Lahaina and killed Rebecca Rans, whose body was found burned to death alongside that of her longtime partner. Ms. Rans suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis and could only walk short distances. On August 11th, Ms. Rans' sister filled out a missing person report with the Lahaina Police Department and the FBI came to her house to collect a DNA sample. On August 19th, FBI agents notified her that Ms. Rans was confirmed to be deceased and her remains had been positively identified a few blocks from her house, behind a building, with those of her boyfriend after they had clearly attempted to flee the fire. Ms. Rans was wearing her gold bracelet with the word Ku'uipo engraved on it, the Hawaiian word for "sweetheart." When her sister relayed what the FBI agents had told her to her elderly father, the Plaintiff, he became extremely distressed and inconsolable.
The complaint details how the risk of wildfires to Lahaina was known to the defendants, documented in reports from the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization dating back to at least 2014. Yet it was only in 2022 that Hawaiian Electric submitted its first request for funding to harden its power grid, far too late. Repeated, specific warnings from the National Weather Service in Honolulu about "dry weather & high fire danger" beginning August 4th meant that the utility defendants knew or should have known that conditions nearly identical to, if not worse than, the 2018 fire were soon to occur and they should de-energize their power lines to prevent the potential fire spread.
As stated in the complaint, Maui County officials were also ill prepared for the Lahaina Fire, failing to adequately warn residents that the fire was marching towards them, which would have given them more time to flee, and insufficiently planning for multiple evacuation routes. Large landowners, including Bishop Estate, the State, and Maui County, had a duty to reduce fire risk to Lahaina and other vulnerable places, yet they undertook no or poor vegetation management. Bishop Estate is a trust that was endowed with nearly 10% of the landmass of the state of Hawai'i. Today, Bishop owns several large parcels of land that were in the path of and facilitated the fire destruction that ultimately destroyed Rans' residence and caused her untimely and tragic death.
About Bickerton Law Group LLLP
Bickerton Law Group is one of Honolulu's premier litigation law firms. Widely respected in Hawai'i's legal community, Bickerton Law Group attorneys are known for their tenacity, innovation, and practicality in helping accident, fire, and malpractice victims, injured consumers, employees, and public figures navigate the legal system. Since 1989, its Honolulu litigation attorneys have successfully represented clients on matters as wide-ranging as wrongful death and substantial personal injury, class actions, unfair competition, wrongful termination, public interest advocacy, professional liability and medical malpractice, protecting Hawai'i's land, people, and open government. Learn more at bsds.com.
About Andrews & Thornton
Through successful litigations against companies that made harmful products, Andrews & Thornton has obtained compensation for injured consumers through the combined knowledge of over fifty years of legal experience. Andrews & Thornton has been a leader in pharmaceutical, medical device and dietary supplement litigation, prosecuting lawsuits in State and Federal District Courts. Its attorneys have earned a national reputation as effective mass tort advocates and have been asked to participate with mass tort leadership in California, Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Minnesota. Andrews & Thornton has also worked inside some of the largest corporate bankruptcies in history to secure compensation for victims. Andrews & Thornton has helped negotiate billions in compensation for victims in bankruptcies, including $13.5 billion for PG&E fire victims (Camp Fire, Nuns Fire, Atlas Fire, Tubbs Fire). Learn more at andrewsthornton.com.
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