Three law firms filed a class-action lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric on Saturday, alleging that the utility’s downed power lines significantly contributed to the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.
The complaint, obtained by Spectrum News, claims that Hawaiian Electric, which supplies 95% of the state’s power, “inexcusably kept their power lines energized during forecasted high fire danger conditions.”
On Aug. 4 — four days before the fire swept Maui and leveled the city of Lahaina — the National Weather Service (NWS) warned Hawaii could experience “indirect impacts” from Hurricane Dora, including “strong and gusty trade wins” and “dry weather & high fire danger.”
The NWS issued a Red Flag Warning for portions of the Hawaiian Islands, including West Maui. On Aug. 8. Despite Hawaiian Electric officials’ knowledge of these warnings, they failed to shut off the downed lines, causing loss of life, serious injuries, destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses, displacement of thousands of people and damage to many of Hawaii’s historic and cultural sites, the complaint alleges.
The lawsuit is filed against Maui Electric Company, Limited (“MECO”); Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc. (“HECO”); Hawaii Electric Light Company, Inc. (“HELCO”); and their parent company, Hawaiian Electric Industries, Inc. (“HEI”) on behalf of the victims and survivors of the Lahaina Fire. It was filed by the Honolulu and Los Angeles-based law firm of LippSmith LLP, together with Foley Bezek Behle & Curtis, LLP and Robertson & Associates, LLP.
“We have been representing thousands of homeowners across the state of Hawaii for many years now, and we are humbled to represent the victims and survivors of this tragedy,” said Graham LippSmith, the co-founder of LippSmith LLP.
The practice of deenergizing power lines during fire weather conditions is commonplace in the Western United States, the suit says. Public Safety Power Shutoffs (“PSPS”) are used during Red Flag and High Wind conditions to prevent wildfires, to protect against dangerous conditions that could damage equipment and spark a fire.
Power lines have been blamed for roughly half of the most destructive wildfires in California history, according to California’s Public Utility Commission, and for many others in the U.S.
The suit cites Jennifer Potter, a member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission who lived in Lahaina on Maui, who said nine months ago that the utility 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," Potter said, according to the complaint.
It also cites a Hawaiian Electric funding request from June 2022. That report says “[t]he risk of a utility system causing a wildfire ignition is significant” and the company sought funding specifically to “minimize the probability of the Companies’ facilities becoming the origin or contributing source of ignition for a wildfire.”
Potter, in the complaint, described said the utility was “not as proactive as they should have been” and criticized them for not taking meaningful steps to address their “inadequacies in terms of wildfire."As of Sunday, at least 93 people are confirmed dead in the Maui wildfires, the largest such toll in a U.S. wildfire in more than a century. The Pacific Disaster Center and FEMA estimate that the cost of rebuilding following damage from the Lahaina Fire is $5.52 billion.
“This destruction could have been avoided if Defendants had heeded the National Weather Service warnings and deenergized their power lines during the predicted high-wind event,” the complaint states.
A spokesperson Hawaiian Electric declined to comment on the lawsuit in a statement to Spectrum News, saying that the company does not comment on pending litigation as a policy.
“Our immediate focus is on supporting emergency response efforts on Maui and restoring power for our customers and communities as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “At this early stage, the cause of the fire has not been determined and we will work with the state and county as they conduct their review.”
Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez announced an investigation into the causes of the fire and potential shortcomings by officials and agencies in the lead up to the blaze.
“My Department is committed to understanding the decisions that were made before and during the wildfires and to sharing with the public the results of this review,” Lopez said in a statement Friday. “As we continue to support all aspects of the ongoing relief effort, now is the time to begin this process of understanding.”
Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono said she supported reviews, including Lopez’s, into state and local officials’ efforts to warn residents to evacuate ahead of the fire. There have been reports some residents did not receive wireless emergency alerts and a spokesperson for the state’s Emergency Management Agency told the Los Angeles Times that a network of outdoor sirens was not activated when the fire began to blaze on Tuesday.
“I’m not going to make any excuses for this tragedy,” Hirono said. “There will be time enough, I would say, for those kinds of reviews and investigations to occur, but we are really focused as far as I’m concerned on the need for rescue.