In the aftermath of the destructive wildfires that ravaged Mau, a series of property and personal injury wildfire lawsuits has emerged, targeting various entities involved in fire management and response. These legal actions raise important questions about negligence, responsibility, and the application of Hawaii law in addressing the extensive property damage and displacement experienced by the affected residents.
During the early days of August 2023, a series of devastating wildfires swept across the picturesque landscape of Hawaii, with Maui bearing the brunt of the destruction. The focal point of this calamity was a destructive fire that ignited in West Maui near the town of Lahaina on August 8, 2023. The ensuing turmoil was exacerbated by ferocious winds that toppled around 30 utility poles across Maui, leading to more than 15 separate power outages affecting over 12,400 customers. Disturbingly, footage captured by local residents revealed that power lines belonging to Hawaiian Electric appeared to have triggered several of these fires. In the wake of this catastrophe, the fires prompted evacuations, inflicted widespread damage, and resulted in a tragic loss of life, with 114 individuals reported deceased and approximately 850 others still missing in Lahaina.
Understanding the Lawsuits
The lawsuits at hand center on allegations of negligence against multiple defendants, including the state of Hawaii, the county of Maui, and utility companies. These claims suggest that the defendants’ actions or lack thereof contributed to the rapid spread of the wildfires, resulting in widespread destruction and upheaval for thousands of residents.
Key Players in the Lawsuits
Among the significant lawsuits is one filed by the Maui County Employees Association, representing over 3,000 county employees. This legal action alleges that the county’s negligence in fire prevention and response efforts directly led to loss of life and property. Another notable lawsuit involves homeowners who lost their homes in the fires, contending that mismanagement of forests and power lines by the defendants aggravated the fires’ impact.
Application of Hawaii Law
In these cases, Hawaii law plays a crucial role in determining the outcomes of the lawsuits. The application of state laws and regulations will guide the evaluation of negligence claims and the extent of liability borne by the defendants. It’s essential to consider specific aspects of Hawaii law that may be relevant to the claims being pursued:
- Power Line Maintenance and Warning Obligations: The claims against the county of Maui and utility companies involve allegations of inadequate maintenance of power lines and failure to warn residents of wildfire dangers. Hawaii law may outline requirements for maintenance protocols, inspections, and notification procedures to safeguard against potential fire risks.
- Negligence and Duty of Care: Hawaii law recognizes the principle of negligence, which requires individuals and entities to exercise a reasonable duty of care to prevent foreseeable harm to others. The defendants’ adherence to this duty will be closely examined to determine whether their actions were adequate in preventing or mitigating the fires’ impact.
- Forestry Department Funding and Oversight: The allegation that the state of Hawaii failed to adequately fund and staff its forestry department raises questions about government responsibility. Hawaii law may mandate certain obligations for public entities to ensure the safety and well-being of citizens, including effective management of forestry projects.
- Coordination of Response Efforts: If the lawsuits assert that defendants failed to coordinate fire prevention and response efforts, Hawaii law may emphasize the importance of effective collaboration among relevant entities during emergency situations. Failure to coordinate efforts could potentially breach the duty of care owed to the community.
Hawaiian Electric Is the Biggest Defendant
But the biggest claim – where billions of dollars will likely come – is from Hawaiian Electric. As events unfolded, revelations came to light. On August 12, 2023, news outlets reported that Hawaiian Electric had not implemented a public power shutoff plan, a strategy that would deliberately cut off electricity to regions susceptible to spreading fires during strong wind conditions. This news caused a notable impact – a nearly 34% drop in the price of Hawaiian Electric stock.
Subsequently, on August 17, 2023, we learned disclosed that Hawaiian Electric was in discussions with restructuring advisory firms, exploring strategies to navigate the intricate web of financial and legal challenges emerging in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires.
On August 17, 2023, another revelation emerged indicating that Hawaiian Electric had long been cognizant of the wildfire threat, but took limited action for years. The report highlighted that between 2019 and 2022, Hawaiian Electric invested under $245,000 in Maui-specific wildfire projects and didn’t seek state approval to raise utility rates for comprehensive wildfire safety improvements until 2022. The fallout was profound, causing the price of Hawaiian Electric stock to plummet over 17%, further affecting investors.
Two Big Areas of Negligence for Hawaiian Electric
But what really is the core of the complaint? Hawaiian Electric had been aware of wildfire threats but had delayed implementing preventive measures. The utility’s failure to act effectively has been attributed to its aged infrastructure and inadequate wildfire prevention planning.
So if you know you have aging equipment, what do you do? Hopefully, you have a plain to shutoff the electric. But Hawaiian Electric lacked a preemptive power shutoff plan to address the Hawaii wildfires. The company did not employ a safety measure involving shutting off electricity in areas with potential fire risks.
Shareholders Sue Hawaiian Electric
On August 25, 2023, the onslaught of wildfire litigation against Hawaiian Electric got even worse as the utility company’s own shareholders and investors filed suit against the corporation and its executives. The new shareholder class action lawsuit was filed in federal court in California and it accuses the company of violating federal securities laws.
Specifically, the investor lawsuit alleges Hawaiian Electric made materially false and misleading statements in recent SEC filings by failing to warn investors that they had inadequate fire prevention protocols. The shareholder lawsuits against Hawaiian Electric open up yet another front in a rapidly expanding litigation offensive.
If the plaintiffs in these lawsuits prevail, the financial implications for the defendants could be substantial. Successful claims may result in significant monetary awards to cover damages, property losses, and associated costs. Moreover, the outcomes of these lawsuits could influence future fire prevention and response strategies in Hawaii, prompting increased attention to risk management and coordination among stakeholders.
California Wildfire Lawsuits Against PG&E
Hawaiian Electric is not the first utility company to face blame for negligently starting destructive wildfires. In 2017 and 2018, parts of northern California were hit hard wildfires that were very similar to the recent fires in Maui in terms of their origins and destructive outcomes. So the PG&E is a guidepost to who the Maui fire lawsuits will play out and how settlement compensation might work.
In the wake of these fires, blame began to focus sharply on Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). Evidence eventually linked the cause of both fires to downed PG&E power lines. It was also shown that the power lines came down because PG&E negligently failed to upgrade and maintain the power lines, some of which were 100 years old.
The evidence of PG&E’s blatant negligence formed the basis for a wave of lawsuits against the company by individuals who suffered property damage, injury or death as a result of the wildfires. In 2019, the mounting wildfire liability forced PG&E to file for bankruptcy. Eventually, a $13.5 billion settlement trust was negotiated to compensate victims of the California wildfires. PG&E also pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter in federal court.
Could Hawaiian Electric Suffer the Same Fate as PG&E?
Right now, Hawaiian electric is facing the same type of blame and liability that was directed at PG&E after the California wildfires in 2018. This naturally raises the question of whether Hawaiian Electric will suffer a similar fate.
At this point, it is too early to say how things will play out for Hawaiian Electric. In the PG&E case there was very specific and very obvious evidence of exactly how the company was negligent and how that negligence directly resulted in the wildfires. We don’t have that type of “smoking gun” evidence of negligence against Hawaiian Electric …. not yet at least. If the evidence of negligence does emerge, however, we can expect a very similar outcome to what happened to PG&E.
Call Us About a Maui Wildfire Lawsuit
The ongoing wildfire lawsuits in Hawaii highlight the complexity of negligence claims arising from catastrophic events. As these legal actions progress, Hawaii law will serve as the guiding framework for assessing liability, duty of care, and adherence to safety standards. Ultimately, these lawsuits underscore the importance of proactive measures to prevent wildfires and the necessity.
Getting a Maui Wildfire Lawyer
If you believe you have a Maui fire lawsuit – either for property damage, personal injury, or wrongful death – call our attorneys at 800-553-8082 or get a free online consultation online.