Class Action Lawsuit Blames Utilities for Deadly Maui Wildfire

A class action lawsuit has been filed against Maui Electric Company, Limited, Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc., Hawaii Electric Light Company, Inc., and Hawaiian Electric Industries, Inc. alleging they bear responsibility for the tragic Lahaina Fire on the Island of Maui. At present at fire has claimed at least 99 lives, destroyed 2700 buildings, burned over 2,000 acres and caused damages estimated at over $5 billion.

Monica I. Eder and Rede S. Eder are the named plaintiffs in what undoubtedly will become a mass tort lawsuit. The complaint was filed electronically on Saturday, August 12, 2023 in Hawaii’s First Circuit Court and blames the electric companies for not taking adequate precautions prior to the fire, and for causing the initial fire at 6:37am on August 8, 2023 that eventually led to the conflagration.

The suit alleges negligence, gross negligence, private nuisance, inverse condemnation, and strict liability for ultra hazardous activities. The complaint contains numerous photographs and maps detailing the fire and its aftermath. The following abbreviations are used in the complaint: Maui Electric Company, Limited (MECO); Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc. (HECO); Hawaii Electric Light Company, Inc. (HELCO); and Hawaiian Electric Industries, Inc. (HEI).

Quoting from the complaint:

  • 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.
  • Jennifer Potter, a member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission just nine months ago, and who lived in Lahaina on Maui, confirmed that Defendants knew about the wildfire risk to Maui: “There was absolutely knowledge within the state and within the electric industry that fire was a huge, huge concern on the island of Maui, and even more so than any of the other islands[.]”
  • In fact, Defendants indicated in their funding request that “[t]he risk of a utility system causing a wildfire ignition is significant” and that Defendants sought funding, in part, to guard against their facilities being “the origin or a contributing source of ignition for a wildfire.”
  • On Friday, August 4, 2023, the National Weather Service in Honolulu (“NWS”) posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Hawai‘i could experience “indirect impacts” from Hurricane Dora from Monday, August 7, 2023 through Wednesday, August 9, 2023, including “Strong and gusty trade wins” and “Dry weather & high fire danger.”
  • Two days later, on Sunday, August 6, 2023, NWS posted a warning on X: “Strongest winds in yellows & oranges on map result from significant pressure differences between high & low pressures. Combined w/ dry conditions, these winds pose a serious fire & damaging wind threat. Stay alert!” NWS also posted an update on Hurricane Dora on X, which included the following warning: “While Hurricane Dora passes well south with no direct impacts here, the strong pressure gradient between it & the high pressure to the north creates a threat of damaging winds & fire weather (due to ongoing dry conditions) from early Mon to Wed.”
  • On Monday, August 7, 2023, NWS issued an updated warning for the Hawaiian Islands, as reported in The Maui News. This warning contained both a High Wind Watch and a Fire Warning for the leeward portions of the state, which included Lahaina. The warning cautioned that damaging winds could blow down power lines and that any fires that developed would likely spread rapidly.
  • On Tuesday, August 8, 2023, the NWS issued both a High Wind Warning and Red Flag Warning for portions of the Hawaiian Islands, including West Maui. Specifically, the NWS warned the following: “High Wind: 30–45 mph winds, gusts up to 60 mph . . . . Red Flag: High fire danger with rapid spread. NO outdoor burning. Stay safe & cautious!”
  • Per NWS, a Red Flag Warning “means that critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now or will shortly. A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity, and warm temperatures can contribute to extreme fire behavior.”
  • Despite Defendants’ knowledge about these Red Flag and other warnings, Defendants left their power lines energized. These power lines foreseeably ignited the fast- moving, deadly, and destructive Lahaina Fire, which destroyed homes, businesses, churches, schools, and historic cultural sites. The fire killed scores of people and ruined hundreds—if not thousands—of lives.
  • This deadly fire also displaced thousands of people, who lost their homes, forcing them to live in shelters, campgrounds, hotels, and cars.
  • 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 started a fire, it would spread at a critically fast rate to the Plaintiffs’ and Putative Class Members’ properties, without warning and without sufficient time for them to safely evacuate themselves and their loved ones, to gather their pets, or to collect their other possessions.
  • 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.
  • On August 8, 2023, at approximately 6:37 a.m., someone reported a brush fire near Lahainaluna Road. Authorities ordered evacuations minutes later, at 6:40 a.m., in the area surrounding Lahaina Intermediate School and closed Lahainaluna Road between Kelawea Street and Kuialua Street.
  • At approximately 9:00 a.m. on August 8, 2023, the Maui Fire Department declared the three-acre Lahaina brush fire 100% contained. However, power outages negatively impacted the ability to pump water, so authorities asked the public to conserve water in West Maui. The authorities kept Lahainaluna Road closed between Kelawea and Kuialua Streets, while HEI responded to a downed power line in the area.
  • Later the same day, at 4:45 p.m., Maui Now reported that “[a]n apparent flareup of the Lahaina Fire forced the closure of Lahaina Bypass around 3:30 p.m. Evacuations are occurring in the vicinities of Lahainaluna Road, Hale Mahaolu and Lahaina Bypass… Multiple roads, including Honoapi‘ilani Highway from Hokiokio Place to Lahaina Bypass, are closed due to downed power lines.”
  • Together, the initial fire that started on August 8, 2023, at 6:37 a.m. and the later flare-ups of that fire at 9:30 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. comprise the Lahaina Fire.
  • Plaintiffs are informed and believe that the Lahaina Fire caused and/or contributed to the destruction of the town of Lahaina, killing scores of people and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.
  • The Google Earth map image below depicts the location where the Lahaina Fire reportedly started. One of the Defendants’ power substations is located near where both the initial three-acre fire started and where authorities reported a downed power line early on August 8, 2023.
  • Defendants owed a duty to design, construct, inspect, repair, and maintain their power poles, power lines, transformers, reclosers, and other electrical equipment adequately. Defendants also owed a duty to maintain and operate their power lines, overhead electrical infrastructure, and equipment properly to ensure they would not cause a fire. These duties included deenergizing their power lines during Red Flag Warnings to prevent fires and conducting adequate vegetation management, such as clearing vegetation, trees, and tree limbs that could come into contact with their power lines and equipment. In addition, Defendants knew that their electrical infrastructure was inadequate, aging, and/or vulnerable to foreseeable and known weather conditions. Defendants failed to fulfill each of these duties.
  • As an electric utility, Defendants were engaged in a dangerous activity and, accordingly, owed the public a heightened duty of care to avoid foreseeable risks attendant to this activity, including the risk of fire. This heightened duty included exercising a very high degree of care and prudence, such as ensuring the safe transmission of electricity over their infrastructure during high-wind events and monitoring weather conditions that would affect their electrical infrastructure (i.e., forecasted high winds and Red Flag Warnings).
  • Defendants also owed the public a duty to mitigate damage to their electrical infrastructure from high winds, specifically, to prevent a wildfire. Defendants further owed a duty to design and construct their power poles and power lines to perform safely and not fail during foreseeable wind events that would endanger Plaintiffs’ and Putative Class Members’ lives and property.
  • Unfortunately, Defendants failed to take these steps, and on August 8, 2023, Hawaii News Now reported that “[m]ore than 30 downed power poles” were “reported on Maui.”
  • Michael Wara, a wildfire expert who directs the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University said the pattern of the Lahaina Fire “suggests that a spate of small ignitions combined to form a bigger blaze” and “‘the only real source of that is power lines.’”
  • The catastrophic losses from the Lahaina Fire could have been prevented had Defendants implemented a PSPS [public safety power shutoffs] prior to the fire starting and taken other reasonable steps to prevent their electrical equipment from igniting the fire.
  • In addition, the Mayor of Maui noted that downed power poles added to the chaos surrounding the Lahaina Fire, as downed power poles with live wires still attached cut off two important roads, leaving only the narrow highway passable.
  • As a result, Defendants have caused Plaintiffs, the Putative Class Members, and their community to suffer devastating property damage, economic losses, and disruption of their homes, businesses, livelihoods, and mental well-being. Life will never be the same for the thousands of victims and survivors of the Lahaina Fire.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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