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Judge Dismisses Claims: State cannot be Sued in Federal Court over Lahaina Fire
By Court House News @ 5:00 AM :: 1733 Views :: Maui County, Energy, Hawaii State Government, Judiciary

Hawaii ducks Maui fire class actions but isn’t off the hook yet

The state is dismissed from a set of federal cases that aim to hold it liable for the deadly wildfires but may still face claims in state court.

by Candace Cheung, Court House News, April 5, 2024

HONOLULU (CN) — A federal judge ruled Friday that the state of Hawaii won’t have to face federal claims from a trio of federal class actions filed against it in the aftermath of the devastating wildfires in Maui that destroyed the town of Lahaina and killed over 100 people.

U.S. District Judge Jill Otake essentially severed any state defendants from three class actions originally brought against the government, Hawaiian Electric, telecommunications companies and private landowners for their role in the August 2023 fires.

The class actions, along with hundreds of individual suits — including one from the County of Maui itself — accuse the various defendants of failing to prevent flammable conditions and of contributing to the rapid spread of the fires.

The judge ultimately dismissed in a 50-page opinion the claims against Hawaii and its state agencies after determining that it has Eleventh Amendment immunity.

The government had initially pushed to remand the suits back to state courts after Hawaiian Electric systematically attempted to remove the deluge of Maui fire cases against it. But Otake didn’t think that full remand was necessary.

“The state cites no persuasive authority that remand of an entire action is warranted simply because it has been named as a defendant and invoked its immunity,” she wrote. “The court thus agrees with removing defendants that remand of the entirety of Eder and Naki is not warranted based on the Eleventh Amendment.”

The judge also made it clear that the dismissal from federal court didn’t preclude the plaintiffs from pursuing their class claims in state court.

“A partial remand also creates certain inefficiencies — in the form of carved-up class actions in state and federal court. The court concludes the better outcome is therefore to dismiss the claims against the State without prejudice and allow the named plaintiffs in Eder and Naki to determine how they wish to proceed," she wrote.

For at least some of the plaintiffs, the plan is to proceed exactly as the judge suggested.

Kenneth Kasdan, an attorney representing the Naki class of plaintiffs, says their intention is to refile the claims against Hawaii in state courts.

For the claims against the other defendants, Otake ruled that the cases were properly removed under the Class Action Fairness Act, which allows for expanded federal jurisdiction in class claims.

“We agree with the judge’s ruling on CAFA items. We contended at the federal court hearing that the balance of the class action remain at the federal court and we intend remain in federal court for certification and trial of the class action case,” Kasdan said.

The state had argued that there wasn’t sufficient diversity among either the plaintiffs and defendants under the act, but Otake disagreed with the Hawaii’s interpretation that it and Maui County were the only primary defendants in the cases.

“The court thus concludes that all the defendants named in Eder are primary defendants where plaintiffs are also suing private actors directly for their own actions in contributing to the totality of the harm that resulted from the Lahaina Fire,” the judge wrote.

Otake also confirmed that the class actions named a proper range of plaintiffs, noting that the proposed classes of people and businesses negatively impacted by the fires would likely encompass non-Hawaii residents, including tourists and off-island property owners.

Despite Hawaiian Electric’s removal attempts for all the cases against it from state courts in Maui and Oahu, a majority have been shot back down to the state level. Around 90 individual cases were determined in February to fall under the Multiparty, Mulitforum Trial Jurisdiction Act. These cases are now part of special proceedings in state court to coordinate the process.

Though Otake issued her Friday ruling in a consolidated order, none of the Maui fire cases have been officially consolidated. The judge recommended that plaintiffs’ attorneys come to a consensus about consolidation or coordination as the cases move forward.

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