Hawaiian Electric seeks federal trial amid dozens of Maui wildfire lawsuits

Attorneys for Hawaiian Electric Company, who face dozens of lawsuits over the utility’s liability for the Maui fires, are trying to move the cases to  federal court and not have the trials set on the island. Most of the lawsuits claim that MECO either caused the fires when high winds hit downed powerlines, or didn’t do enough to prevent damage once the fires were burning.

MauiNow.com video
Video news report by MauiNow.com  

Maui’s power was out before the fires started — but then Hawaiian Electric switched it back on. In congressional testimony, President and CEO Shelee Kimura confirmed what many had already suspected — that the utility re-energized its lines just before the early morning fire took off. Honolulu Civil Beat reported that the power was already out in West Maui at 5 a.m. — caused by the hurricane storm winds on August 8 — and it could have stayed off if Hawaiian Electric had not decided to re-energize the lines.

Ignoring or re-prioritizing the danger, the company rebooted a tripped transmission line, in order to keep the power on to some customers in Lahaina despite the high winds and extreme fire danger. The power was back on about 6 a.m. and within an hour a downed powerline near Lahainaluna Road ignited a fire that was likely the origin of the firestorm that ripped through Lahaina and killed over 100 people. Numerous lawsuits have been initiated since then, and Hawaii News Now reports that HECO is asking the federal courts to try the case in Honolulu with a federal judge.

NASA image, Maui fires 2023

They argue that federal jurisdiction is possible because one of the defendants being sued is out of state.

“I don’t think that there’s authority for what they’re doing,” said Lance Collins, a lawyer for the wildfire victims. “And this just seems to be one huge waste of everybody’s time. It’s a delaying tactic.”

Collins doesn’t believe Hawaiian Electric is trying to avoid a jury made up of Maui residents — a logical assumption — because he says a federal jury would still be sympathetic to the victims. Hawaiian Electric argues that the federal courts have more resources for a case of this magnitude.

All the lawsuits are expected to be combined into a single trial.

Reuters, meanwhile, reports that Hawaiian Electric  is already advancing a plan to replace six of its fossil-fuel generators with renewable energy sources, which will add more around-the-clock renewable generation. The utility company has begun contract negotiations for 15 renewable energy projects, advancing toward Hawaii’s goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.


Hawaiian Electric sees its first lawsuit

Shares of Hawaiian Electric fell more than 20 percent today after reports that the utility is considering restructuring as it faces numerous high-end lawsuits for its role in Maui’s disastrous wildfires. The company’s stock is down more than 73 percent thus far in 2023.

According to a CNN report, shares plummeted to 13-year lows on Monday after a class-action suit alleged that the Maui fires were caused by powerlines toppeled by strong winds. In a lawsuit strikingly similar to the Pacific Power class-action suit in Oregon, plaintiffs want the power company to bear financial responsibility for the deaths and destruction resulting from the utility’s failure to de-energize its powerlines despite ample warning by fire officials and weather experts about approaching extreme winds and related volatile dangers.

Hawaiian Electric“The past days have been devastating for Maui and all of Hawaii,” said Shelee Kimura, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric. “We have seen human loss and devastation on a scale that’s difficult for our hearts and minds to process. Maui lost homes and businesses, places of worship and cherished historic places. My heart breaks over and over, alongside all of Hawaii, for the people, communities and aina of Maui.”

She added that the restoration efforts now under way are personal to the utility’s employees. “Hawaiian Electric will continue to be here in full force with hundreds of dedicated employees and partners from Maui, Oahu, Hawaii Island, Molokai, Lanai, and beyond. We are focused on restoring power to support our communities’ work to recover and build back.”

The lawsuit alleges that Hawaiian Electric Industries “chose not to deenergize their powerlines during the High Wind Watch and Red Flag Warning conditions for Maui before the Lahaina Fire started,” despite knowing the risks of igniting a fire in those conditions. At least two other lawsuits have already been filed against the company for its role in the fires that killed at least 111 people on the island and destroyed the town of Lahaina. That number is expected to rise, with as many as 1,000 people still missing.