Hawaii’s biggest power utility faces growing scrutiny over the role it is accused of playing in the deadliest wildfire in modern American history, including detailed allegations in a lawsuit filed on 15 August that it was negligent and knowingly failed to take proper action to prevent a catastrophe.
The new lawsuit, first obtained by NBC News, alleges that Hawaiian Electric helped set the stage for the catastrophic wildfires that broke out on 8 August The plaintiffs allege years of inaction and negligence by the utility company, and argue that the firm should have had plans in place to shut down power systems before strong winds blew across the Hawaiian islands.
“Hawaiian Electric is not just responsible and they weren’t just negligent,” said Mikal Watts, a lead attorney on the case. “They were grossly negligent by making conscious decisions to delay grid modernisation projects that would have prevented this very tragedy.”
Three other lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the fire that were reviewed by NBC News make similar claims against the company, which provides electricity to 95% of the state.
Hawaiian Electric Company has so far declined to comment on the pending lawsuits, saying that would violate an internal policy. Darren Pai, a spokesperson for the company, said Hawaiian Electric was aware of the allegations but remained focused on restoring power to Maui. He emphasised that “the cause of the fire has not been determined and we will work with the state and county as they conduct their review.”
Officials are still investigating the causes of the massive blazes that ravaged historic seaside communities and killed at least 101 people.
Watts, who said his team has been approached by hundreds of potential plaintiffs, said his lawsuit is aimed at preventing the islands from ever experiencing fires like this again. He said similar litigation in California has led to safety improvements and processes that have limited recent wildfire fallout, and that Hawaiian Electric was aware of those efforts.
The lawsuit details multiple instances and documents in which Hawaiian Electric and public utility officials acknowledge the dangers of wildfires, and the potential for downed power lines and grid infrastructure to start them in areas where vegetation growth was not mitigated. The risks were outlined in Hawaiian Electric news releases, documents it filed to the state, and in its own expenditure plans, and the lawsuit alleges that the firm’s collapsed lines and grid equipment were the root cause.
“Their own papers say they knew how to prevent it, and their own papers showed their conscious and deliberate decision to delay the implementation of safety measures that would have prevented this tragedy – the most deadly wildfire in American history,” Watts said.
In one significant instance, a 2022 funding request for $189.7 million from the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission to harden its power grid statewide, Hawaiian Electric said that the risk of its utility system ‘causing a wildfire ignition is significant.’ The company said it needed the funding to ensure its facilities were not ‘the origin or a contributing source of ignition for a wildfire. Despite the request being approved, Hawaiian Electric did not act, the lawsuit alleges.
“This wildfire was not only predictable, it was predicted,” Watts added, “both by (Hawaiian Electric) and anyone else that bothered to look into the issue.”
Some survivors and attorneys across multiple lawsuits contend that the company should have deployed a ‘public power shutoff plan,’ which would require the utility to turn off electric power in areas where wind could cause a fire. In an era when wildfires have grown more prevalent and deadly, similar plans have been adopted to mitigate destruction in states such as California.
Pai said that the electric company did not have a formal power shutoff plan and that any “short-notice power shutoffs have to be co-ordinated with first responders” because electricity was needed in Lahaina to power the pumps used for firefighting. He said electricity shutoffs can also pose risks to people with medical needs.