Hawaii, Maui sued by victim's family for gross negligence in deadly wildfires

FILE PHOTO: Maui children face grief, destruction as schools start up after wildfire

By Clark Mindock

(Reuters) - The father of a woman who died during last month's wildfires in Hawaii has sued the state and the county of Maui in a “first-of-its-kind” lawsuit accusing the governments of gross negligence leading to the blazes that razed the historic town of Lahaina.

Filed on Monday in Hawaii state court, the lawsuit is the first stemming from the wildfires to be lodged against the state. It also names the state's electric utility Hawaiian Electric, which is already facing several lawsuits, and a major landowner on the island, Bishop Estate, over the fires.

The lawsuit, filed by Harold Wells on behalf of himself and his 57-year-old daughter's heirs, alleges that the risk of wildfires were well-known to the defendants and that the fires were preventable. Measures that would have reduced the risk, including proper vegetation and electrical grid management were not taken by the defendants, Wells argued.

Wells' daughter, Rebecca Rans, is among at least 115 people who died during the deadliest U.S. wildfires in more than a century. The county released a list of 388 people believed to still be missing late last month.

Large landowners, including the state, county and Bishop Estate, had a duty to reduce wildfire risk by regularly clearing dry vegetation in the area but failed to do so, the lawsuit claims. Hawaiian Electric, meanwhile, failed to de-energize its electrical equipment during hurricane-force winds, sparking the fires, the lawsuit said.

A spokesperson for Hawaiian Electric said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

A spokesperson for the Hawaii attorney general's office said they were reviewing the lawsuit.

The Bishop Estate did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Hawaiian Electric is already facing about a dozen civil lawsuits, including proposed class actions filed by Maui residents, property owners and business owners and a lawsuit by the county, over injuries, deaths and property damage caused by the fires. Those lawsuits claim the utility is responsible as a result of negligent mismanagement of its electrical equipment.

In response to the county's lawsuit, the company said last month that its power lines were de-energized after an initial fire likely caused by its lines was contained. It said its power lines were shut off for at least six hours before a second fire started in the afternoon, which the company said Maui's fire department was unable to contain.

Hawaiian Electric has also been sued by its investors, who allege they suffered significant losses and damages due to the company's failure to disclose important information about its wildfire prevention and safety protocols.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it will provide $95 million to Hawaiian Electric to help strengthen Maui's power grid.

(Reporting by Clark Mindock; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Bill Berkrot)