Maui County files lawsuit against Maui Electric Company, Hawaiian Electric Company following wildfires

The lawsuit alleges the companies were negligent amid poor weather conditions.

August 24, 2023, 5:12 PM

Maui County says it has filed a lawsuit against local electric companies over damage caused by the devastating Maui wildfires, including ones in Lahaina and Kula.

The lawsuit alleges that Maui Electric Company, Limited, Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc., Hawaiʻi Electric Light Company, Inc., and Hawaiian Electric Industries, Inc. acted negligently by failing to power down their electrical equipment despite a National Weather Service red flag warning on Aug. 7.

A red flag warning, according to the National Weather Service, means "warm temperatures, very low humidities, and stronger winds are expected to combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger."

The deadly wildfires that erupted on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Aug. 8 killed more than 100 people, burned thousands of acres and destroyed more than 2,000 structures.

Officials say the blaze spread rapidly due to very dry conditions stemming from a drought, combined with powerful winds.

The lawsuit alleges that the downed, energized power lines "ignited dry fuel such as grass and brush, causing the fires."

At a press conference on Aug. 15, a representative for Hawaiian Electric said an investigation is underway as to what happened. When pressed about why power lines were not de-energized during powerful winds, the representative said that, unlike California, the state does not have a shut-off program, saying they are "controversial" and not universally accepted, and adding they create a hardship for the vulnerable and people with medical needs. She also pointed out that electricity powers the pumps that provide water to fight the fire.

An official cause of the fire has not been determined.

A aerial view of the burned areas in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, Aug. 17, 2023.
Jae C. Hong/AP

More than 1,000 people remain unaccounted for, according to officials.

"Maui County stands alongside the people and communities of Lahaina and Kula to recover public resource damages and rebuild after these devastating utility-caused fires," Maui County said in a press release.

It continued, "These damages include losses to public infrastructure, fire response costs, losses to revenues, increased costs, environmental damages, and losses of historical or cultural landmarks."

A spokesperson for Hawaiian Electric Media Relations told ABC News, "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. We are very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding.”

A separate class-action lawsuit was also filed last Saturday against Hawaiian Electric that alleges that the company "inexcusably kept their power lines energized" despite forecasts of high winds that could topple power lines and potentially ignite a fast-spreading blaze.

Jim Kelly, a spokesperson for Hawaiian Electric Industries, said at the time of that lawsuit: "As has always been our policy, we don’t comment on pending litigation. Our immediate focus is on supporting emergency response efforts on Maui and restoring power for our customers and communities as quickly as possible. 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."

Hawaiian Electric provides power for 95% of Hawaii residents, according to the company's website.

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