A trio of Hawaiian utilities is accused of contributing to the Lahaina Fire in West Maui by failing to de-energize powerlines.
Fire litigation firm Singleton Schreiber filed the first of many expected Maui wildfire lawsuits on behalf of Darlene Gomes, Paula Jelsma, Anderson Byrne, Saif Shaban, Doris Daniela White, and Maui Memories in the Second Circuit of Hawaii.
*Article Updated 8/22/23
“Defendants designed, constructed, used, and maintained their utility infrastructure’s system protection devices…in a manner that would keep their powerlines energized for too long after a transmission line failure, allowing a fire to ignite,” the Aug. 14 complaint states. “Defendants could have designed the system protection devices to shut off faster.”
Defendants include Hawaiian Electric Industries, Hawai’i Electric Light Company, and the Maui Electric Company.
“It’s truly devastating,” Julia Bryant, fire litigation attorney at Singleton Schreiber, said in a statement online. “The community has suffered such significant historical and environmental losses. Smoke and ash destroyed the air quality. The damage to the land and vegetation is overwhelming. Most importantly, the loss of life that the community is now grieving can never be remedied.”
Hawaii News Now reported that more than 115 people are deceased, and some 1,000 people are believed lost in the ruins of Lahaina.
“It’s more than any single egregious act,” said Gerald Singleton, managing partner at Singleton Schreiber law firm in San Diego. “It’s the fact that they didn’t take the precautions that were needed when faced with hurricane force winds and what makes it a perfect storm is that you had gusts of hurricane force winds combined with red flag conditions, which means you had very low humidity.”
The fire, which burned through homes, businesses, places of worship, and historic sites, devastated the island in an unprecedented manner. The Maui Emergency Management Agency estimates that it will cost $5.52 billion to rebuild.
“They knew those conditions were coming and they didn’t take any of the precautions that you need to take,” Singleton told OrangeCountyLawyers.com. “At that point, fire was inevitable because you have these older systems which have old wooden poles instead of metal poles. The problem with wooden poles is they can snap in high winds, which they did, whereas metal poles don’t do that.”
The plaintiffs, who allege negligence, nuisance, and trespass, seek economic damages, non-economic damages, and punitive damages.
“Trespass and nuisance are basically two sides of the same coin,” Singleton added. “They allow us to recover for physical damage and for emotional distress. The nuisance cause of action allows us to recover certain types of non-economic damages that would not be recoverable in any other format and that’s why we bring it.”
More than 2,200 structures were damaged or destroyed, according to a press release, and people’s priceless possessions as well as beloved pets and other animals were incinerated. For some, everything they had spent a lifetime earnings gathering, saving, and cherishing was lost.
“If you’re not going to put the proper precautions into place, which they hadn’t done before, then you absolutely have to shut off the power because otherwise you’re going to get exactly what happened here,” Singleton said.
Juliette Fairley covers legal topics for various publications including the Southern California Record, the Epoch Times and Pacer Monitor-News. Prior to discovering she had an ease and facility for law, Juliette lived in Orange County and Los Angeles where she pursued acting in television and film.