Maui County, Hawaii, on Thursday sued Hawaiian Electric Co., alleging its failure to shut off power despite repeated warnings of the potential for devastating fires ignited the wind-swept flames that destroyed Lahaina this month.
The county is seeking damages and “just compensation” against Hawaiian Electric and three related companies, accusing them of negligence, according to the suit filed in the state's Second Circuit Court.
The county seeks compensation for the destruction of public property and infrastructure and natural resources, the suit said.
Hawaiian Electric and another company named as a defendant were cautioned that strong winds could affect power lines and spread fires quickly, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says that on Aug. 6, two days before the destructive wildfires, the National Weather Service warned that high winds combined with dry conditions from passing Hurricane Dora to the south posed a serious fire threat.
On the day of the wildfires, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for areas of the Hawaiian Islands, including West Maui, where Lahaina is located.
Despite knowing of the warnings, "Defendants left their powerlines energized,” according to the lawsuit, which alleges the "destruction could have been avoided" had the lines been shut off.
“These powerlines foreseeably ignited the fast-moving, deadly, and destructive Lahaina Fire, which completely destroyed residences, businesses, churches, schools, and historic cultural sites," it says.
The suit also alleges that defendants were responsible for properly maintaining lines, overhead electrical infrastructure, other equipment and vegetation that could come into contact with equipment so it would not cause a fire.
"Additionally, Defendants knew that their electrical infrastructure was inadequate, aging, and/or vulnerable to foreseeable and known weather conditions," the suit says. "Ultimately, Defendants failed to fulfill each of these duties."
In a statement Thursday, Hawaiian Electric said its focus in the aftermath of the fires has been to support the people of Maui and Maui County.
“We are very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding,” it said.
At least 115 people have been confirmed dead, and about 1,000 more may be unaccounted for, officials have said.
According to the suit, figures from the Pacific Disaster Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimate it will cost $5 billion to rebuild Lahaina, a historic seaside town that was once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Hawaiian Electric is a for-profit, investor-owned, publicly traded utility that serves 95% of Hawaii’s electric customers.
The utility faces at least 11 other lawsuits in relation to the fires, some of them from Lahaina residents, as well as one from investors who accused it of fraud in a federal lawsuit alleging it failed to disclose that its wildfire prevention and safety measures were substandard.