A proposed class action lawsuit filed last week claims that devastating wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui, which have reportedly killed at least 106 people since breaking out in Lahaina on August 8, were sparked by Hawaiian Electric Industries’ “grossly negligent” decision to leave its power lines energized during forecasted high winds and fire danger conditions.
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In addition to Hawaiian Electric, the largest supplier of electricity in Hawaii, the 32-page case also names as defendants the company’s three electric utility subsidiaries—Maui Electric Company, Limited; Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc.; and Hawaii Electric Light Company, Inc.
According to Michael Wara, a wildfire expert and director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University, the pattern of the Lahaina fire “suggests that a spate of small ignitions combined to form a bigger blaze” and that “the only real source of that” is power lines, the complaint relays.
As such, the complaint alleges that the companies’ failure to heed warnings from the National Weather Service (NWS) regarding a predicted high-wind and fire event by shutting off the power to their power lines ignited “the most destructive—and deadliest—human-made disaster in Hawai’i history.”
With the entire historic town of Lahaina decimated by the fires, thousands of individuals have been displaced and forced to live in shelters, campgrounds, hotels and cars, the suit stresses. The complaint says survivors have also suffered severe burns, smoke inhalation and significant mental stress and emotional devastation.
The death toll as of August 16 is expected to rise significantly as authorities continue to search the affected area, CNN reports.
The defendants could have prevented disaster, suit claims
Per the lawsuit, the NWS in Honolulu began reporting as early as August 4 that powerful winds from Hurricane Dora—which was forecasted to pass hundreds of miles south of the islands between August 7 and 9—combined with dry conditions, were expected to pose a serious, statewide fire danger.
On August 7, the NWS explicitly cautioned that high winds in certain portions of the state, including Lahaina, had the potential to topple power lines, ignite vegetation and spread fires at a “critically fast rate,” the suit relays. The next day, the weather agency issued high wind and “Red Flag” warnings in light of critical fire weather conditions within the area, the case says.
“Despite [the defendants’] knowledge about these Red Flag and other warnings, [the defendants] left their power lines energized,” the complaint says. “These power lines foreseeably ignited the fastmoving, deadly, and destructive Lahaina Fire, which destroyed homes, businesses, churches, schools, and historic cultural sites.”
According to the filing, de-energizing power lines during extreme weather conditions is a standard procedure in parts of the Western United States familiar with wildfires. For example, a number of California utilities have for years conducted “public safety power shutoffs” (PSPS) in response to Red Flag and high wind warnings, the filing notes.
Although the defendants reported in a 2019 press release that they had evaluated major California utilities’ wildfire mitigation plans, which included PSPS programs, the companies never implemented a program of their own, the complaint contends.
The defendants’ failure to adopt a power-shutoff strategy is particularly “reckless” considering that the utilities were well aware that Maui is particularly vulnerable to wildfires, the filing claims.
In fact, the case says, Hawaiian Electric admitted to the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission in a 2022 request that it needed funding partly to guard against its facilities being “the origin or a contributing source of ignition for a wildfire” because it knew that “[t]he risk of a utility system causing a wildfire ignition is significant.”
“The catastrophic losses from the Lahaina Fire could have been prevented had Defendants implemented a PSPS prior to the fire starting and taken other reasonable steps to prevent their electrical equipment from igniting the fire,” the suit charges.
For example, the lawsuit claims, the companies failed to adequately clear vegetation, trees and tree limbs that could come into contact with their power lines and equipment. Hawaii Electric and its utilities also overlooked their responsibility to design, construct, inspect, repair and maintain their electrical equipment in such a way that ensures they perform safely during foreseeable weather conditions, the suit contends.
Consequently, more than 30 downed power poles were reported in Maui on August 8, and live wires cut off two important roads needed for evacuations, the case relays.
“[The 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 complaint contends.
Such negligence on the part of Hawaii Electric and its utilities has “killed scores of people and ruined hundreds—if not thousands—of lives,” the filing scathes.
Who does the case look to cover?
The lawsuit looks to represent all persons and entities who suffered real property loss, personal property loss, business loss, and/or personal injury as a result of the Lahaina Fire that started on August 8, 2023.
How do I join the lawsuit?
There’s usually nothing you need to do to join or be included in a proposed class action lawsuit when it’s first filed. If the case moves forward and settles, anyone who has been affected, i.e., the “class members,” should receive direct notice of the settlement with instructions on what to do next.