Maui government files lawsuit, accuses Hawaiian electric company of causing Lahaina wildfires

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(CNN) — Maui County filed a lawsuit Thursday against Hawaiian Electric Company and its subsidiaries, alleging that the utility company’s negligence caused the devastating wildfires that burned thousands of acres of land in the state and killed more than 100 people earlier this month.

The lawsuit alleges that the electric company, known as HECO, “inexcusably kept their power lines energized” in early August, despite the fact that the National Weather Service issued a High Wind Watch and a Fire Warning. The warnings cautioned that strong winds could knock down power lines and ignite a fire that would spread quickly due to dry conditions, the lawsuit indicated.

“The fire was a direct and legal result of the negligence, carelessness, and recklessness, and/or unlawfulness” of HECO, the lawsuit states.

Maui County is seeking damages from HECO that may total tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, according to John Fiske, an attorney representing the county in the lawsuit.

A representative from HECO did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

This is the first time an entity of the Hawaiian government has formally accused the utility company of playing a role in the deadliest US fire in more than a century.

HECO is also the subject of a proposed class-action lawsuit filed earlier this month that accused the electric company of choosing not to “deenergize their power lines after they knew some poles and lines had fallen and were in contact with the vegetation or the ground.”

“Our immediate focus is on supporting emergency response efforts on Maui and restoring power for our customers and communities as quickly as possible. At this early stage, the cause of the fire has not been determined and we will work with the state and county as they conduct their review,” Hawaiian Electric vice president Jim Kelly told CNN.

He added that Hawaiian Electric does not have a formal shut-off program in place, and precautionary shut-offs have to be arranged with first responders. “Electricity powers the pumps that provide the water needed for firefighting,” he said.

Hawaiian Electric Company is a for-profit company that serves 95% of Hawaii’s customer base and trades on the New York Stock Exchange.

This isn’t the first time a utility company has been blamed for its alleged role in a powerful wildfire in recent years. In California, Pacific Gas and Electric has reached settlements valued at $25.5 billion, including $1 billion in settlements with cities and counties and $11 billion in settlements with insurance companies, after the company pleaded guilty for its role in the deadly 2018 Camp Fire.

The Hawaiian wildfires, which began on August 8, burned over 2,000 acres in Lahaina, and hundreds of acres in Kula and Olinda on the island of Maui.

The resulting destruction of homes, businesses and infrastructure may result in up to $6 billion in economic losses, according to an estimate from Moody’s RMS.

- CNN’s Paradise Afshar contributed to reporting.

This story was first published on "Maui government files lawsuit, accuses Hawaiian electric company of causing Lahaina wildfires."