Maui County sues HECO, alleging negligence for ‘utility-caused’ wildfire that ravaged Lahaina

Maui County filed suit Thursday against Hawaiian Electric, alleging the utility caused the Lahaina wildfire and failed to take appropriate actions to maintain t
Published: Aug. 24, 2023 at 10:59 AM HST|Updated: Aug. 24, 2023 at 4:16 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Maui County filed suit Thursday against Hawaiian Electric, alleging the utility caused the Lahaina wildfire and failed to take appropriate actions to maintain the grid.

It’s the latest suit against Hawaiian Electric connected to the blaze — now the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century — but a new wrinkle in the story given that previously the utility had only faced litigation from residents for its operations before, during and after the blaze.

John Fiske, one of several attorneys representing the county in the civil suit, says investigators have already documented evidence that “the ultimate cause and origin of the fires from a legal and factual standpoint is lines and phases that were slapping on the ground.”

Special Section: Maui Wildfires

Fiske says a de-energization program should have been in place to cut off power and adds HECO should have taken more action to prepare its equipment with approaching powerful winds.

“Not only should these types of poles and lines and equipment and insulators all withstand these large wind events, but there is now a standard in the investor-owned utility world to de-energize or power down lines in the aftermath of these high wind events because fires can be started,” he said.

HECO said in a statement that it’s ”disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding,” but declined to comment further.

”Our primary focus in the wake of this unimaginable tragedy has been to do everything we can to support not just the people of Maui, but also Maui County,” the utility said.

At a news conference last week, company President Shelee Kimura said it does not have a de-energization program, but added cutting off power would have impacted water systems in a fire.

She also said powering down the grid puts vulnerable populations at risk.

“Even in places it has been used, it is controversial and not universally accepted,” she said.

“It can be seen as creating a hardship for those customers that have medical needs and are at higher risk. these programs, particularly, for elder or other vulnerable people who ahve specialized medical equipment, this can be a very high risk for them.”

Fiske said inconvenience is “much better than burning down communities.”

The lawsuit also says Hawaiian Electric should have powered down lines given the National Weather Service’s warnings about wildfire risk and reports about live wires starting fires.

The wildfire in Lahaina has left at least 115 people dead and destroyed more than 2,200 structures.

The damage estimate exceeds $5.5 billion.

A separate wildfire in Kula also destroyed more than two dozen structures.

Fiske’s law firm, Baron and Budd, specializes in these types of cases with prior experience working with California on several utility-caused wildfires.

The utility’s stock has plummeted amid the litigation, and there is speculation the mounting legal challenges could force Hawaiian Electric into bankruptcy.

Also on Thursday, a wrongful death suit was filed against HECO by the family of Lawrence “Buddy” Jantoc. The 79-year-old was among those who died in the fire, and the law firm that filed the lawsuit said it will be the first of many submitted on behalf of grieving family members.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.