Hawaiian Utility Sued by Homeowner Over Lahaina Fire

By | August 17, 2023

The Hawaiian power company in the crosshairs after wildfires ripped through parts of Maui faces a new lawsuit blaming its equipment for starting blazes that claimed more than 100 lives and wreaked billions of dollars in damages.

Witnesses say some of Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc.’s power poles blew over during an Aug. 8 storm and downed power lines ignited grass fires that quickly mushroomed into a conflagration that destroyed much of the town of Lahaina as well as nearby properties, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of an owner of several destroyed homes.

“When the wildfire in question ignited, there were no lightning strikes,” Mikal Watts, a lawyer for the homeowner, said in the 46-page suit filed in state court in Maui. The utility’s power lines “were the only ignition source in the area available to ignite a fire.”

Hawaiian Electric’s market value has plunged 62% in the past month as lawyers and analysts scrutinize whether equipment owned by its utility — which supplies power to 95% of the state’s residents – sparked the inferno. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday the utility is speaking with restructuring firms to address the financial and legal challenges it faces.

Hawaii and federal authorities are struggling to find shelter for people displaced by last week’s wildfire – the most deadly in the state’s history. It destroyed most of Lahaina, a town of 13,000 and a key Hawaiian historical site. More than 3,000 homes and businesses were destroyed. King Kamehameha I unified all the Hawaiian Islands in 1810 and made the port town his capital. Hawaii Governor Josh Green has estimated fire losses could top $5.6 billion. President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit the area next week.

Watts’s suit joins several class-action cases alleging Hawaiian Electric kept power on despite high-wind warnings and didn’t follow through on safety upgrades for its equipment. Lawyers for fire victim claim the utility’s internal files show officials were aware power shutdowns could have helped avoid wildfires, but failed to implement them.

Darren Pai, a spokesman for Hawaiian Electric, didn’t immediately respond to an email for comment on Watts’s suit. Shelee Kimura, the utility’s CEO, said Monday that the company had started its own probe into the cause of the wildfires and noted the effects of shutting off power could have hampered firefighting efforts.

The National Weather Service warned Maui residents about fire dangers Aug. 7 – the day before the disaster – noting there was a possibility of high winds and dry conditions that could create a serious wildfire threat.

Filings with state regulators showed Hawaiian Electric officials were aware of the need to update power poles and lines to reduce the risk of fires, according to Watts’s suit. ” Unfortunately for the residents of Lahaina, these proposed grid hardening expenditures were deferred” until as far out as 2027, he wrote in the suit.

The case is Jan Apo v. Hawaiian Electric Company, 2CCV-23-0000227, Circuit Court for the Second Circuit of Hawaii (Maui).

Photo: Bloomberg

Topics Lawsuits Homeowners Hawaii

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