Maui County says Hawaiian Electric caused deadly blazes in new lawsuit

Downed power lines block a road as people feed chickens outside a burnt home in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii, on August 11th, 2023. | Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

Maui County has filed suit against Hawaiian Electric, alleging that the utility is responsible for catastrophic damages from wildfires that tore through Maui this month.

The utility “acted negligently by failing to power down their electrical equipment despite a National Weather Service Red Flag Warning” on August 7th, Maui County alleges. The suit says Hawaiian Electric’s downed power lines, while still energized, caused the fire by igniting dry grass and brush. It also alleges that the utility failed to maintain the power grid, causing “systemic failures” that sparked three blazes on August 8th. The county is suing for civil damages affecting public property.

The fires that ensued have taken at least 115 lives, and rescuers are still searching for hundreds of missing people. In Lāhainā and Kula alone, 2,200 structures burned down, with damages likely rising above $5.5 billion.

The investor-owned utility provides electricity to 95 percent of customers in Hawaii. This isn’t the first suit it’s faced in the aftermath of the blazes. At least two class action lawsuits have already been filed against Hawaiian Electric, each blaming the utility’s downed power lines for sparking deadly infernos. Videos taken by Maui residents are expected to become key evidence against Hawaiian Electric.

Hawaiian Electric said in a statement to The Associated Press that it is “very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding.” The utility didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Verge.

The allegations against Hawaiian Electric mirror lawsuits filed against California utility PG&E for its role in the deadly 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people and leveled the town of Paradise. Officials determined that PG&E’s transmission lines caused the wildfire, costing the company around $25.5 billion in settlements with wildfire victims.

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