Father files first-of-its-kind wrongful death lawsuit against Maui, Hawaii over wildfires

Rebecca Rans died as she was trying to escape the fires.

September 6, 2023, 4:52 PM

The father of a woman who died in Maui's wildfires has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Maui County and the state of Hawaii accusing them of negligence and wrongful conduct in allowing the fires to ignite or spread without being contained or suppressed.

Harold Dennis Wells' 57-year-old daughter, Rebecca Rans, died in the Lahaina fire, according to a suit filed Monday.

Rans was killed trying to escape the fires on Aug. 8. Rans and her long-term boyfriend, Doug Gloege, were found burned to death a few blocks from her house, according to court filings.

Defendants named in the suit also include Maui Electric Company, Hawaiian Electric Company, Hawaiian Electric Industries and Kamehameha Schools, formerly known as the Bernice Pauahi Bishop estate -- a charitable foundation that owns large areas of land in the state.

In the suit, Wells alleges that Maui has continued to get drier and hotter for years and there was a spread of non-native flammable grasses and brush vegetation that "took over the island."

Wells alleges the potential for increased fires that originated in or was fueled by the grasslands was "actively discussed among governmental officials, utilities, and informed academics, and was well-known to owners of such grasslands," according to the suit.

A man walks through wildfire wreckage Aug. 11, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Rick Bowmer/AP, FILE

The suit accuses officials of not taking action to prevent or mitigate the risk of fires after the 2018 wildfires.

"Despite this history of serious fires caused by predictable weather conditions, no one in a position to effect change did anything to prevent or substantially mitigate the risk," the suit said.

"The result of these years of neglecting and disregarding the risk that the 2018 Fires would be repeated when similar conditions inevitably occurred was the greatest single-day loss of life and property in Hawai‘i history on August 8, 2023, a catastrophe and tragedy for which all Defendants named herein should share in the fault," the suit said.

The lawsuit also accuses power companies of "taking no measures to harden its grid, increase power line safety, or de-energize its lines ahead of a foreseeable fire event." Hawaii Electric has said it de-energized its lines after a morning wildfire, which was extinguished, and they were not energized when the afternoon fire broke out that consumed Lahaina.

Hawaii Electric, which owns Maui Electric, said in a statement, "As has always been our policy, we don’t comment on pending litigation. We continue to focus on supporting emergency response efforts on Maui and restoring power for our customers and communities as quickly as possible.

Wells accuses Maui County of negligence, alleging it "failed to have proper emergency preparedness procedures," resulting in Rans' death.

The shells of burned houses and buildings are left after wildfires driven by high winds burned across most of the town in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, Aug. 11, 2023.
Hawai'i Dlnr/via Reuters, FILE

The state, county and Bishop trustees are accused of landowner negligence for failing to "exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of vegetation on their property," according to the suit.

"At this time, our hearts are with all affected by the Maui fires and their 'ohana," a spokesperson for Kamehameha Schools said in a statement to ABC News. "Kamehameha Schools is an indigenous educational institution. We are committed to restoring our Native Hawaiian people and culture through education, which includes stewarding and uplifting the health and resiliency of our 'āina (lands) and Native communities. As many aspects of the fires are still under investigation, we have no further comment at this time."

The suit accuses them of failing to maintain their property in a way to "avoid causing injury to members of the public."

Wells is asking for a jury trial and damages including his future medical care expenses, Rans' burial and funeral expenses, and for other economic losses in addition to punitive damages.

Wells also asked for an injunction against defendants to stop them from engaging in dangerous activities outlined in the suit that "have and will likely in the future cause harm to the public."

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