The utility’s timeline of events sought to shift attention to actions taken by Maui County on the day of the fire.
Hawaiian Electric Industries shares rose 44% on Monday after the holding company pushed back against allegations that it was to blame for deadly wildfires that destroyed the Maui town of Lahaina.
Shares closed at just under $14 Monday. That was far lower than the stock’s 52-week high of about $43. But it was still an unequivocally good day for the company, whose shares have been in a seeming free fall since the Aug. 8 fire.
In fact, it was the biggest one-day percentage gain in company history, The Wall Street Journal reported. And it came as the company vigorously disputed Maui County’s accusation that the holding company’s Hawaiian Electric Co. subsidiary had negligently caused the fire in Lahaina.
“Defendants’ inactions caused loss of life, severe injuries, complete destruction of homes and businesses, displacement of thousands of people, and damage to many of Hawai‘i’s historic and cultural sites,” the county said in a complaint filed Thursday in state court.
The fire killed at least 115 people, obliterated about 2,200 structures and caused damages estimated at more than $5 billion.
“We were surprised and disappointed that the County of Maui rushed to court even before completing its own investigation,” Hawaiian Electric Co.’s chief executive, Shelee Kimura, said. “We believe the complaint is factually and legally irresponsible.”
The statement also outlined a purported timeline of events that placed Maui County at the center of problems on Aug. 8. Legal experts said the utility’s sequence of events could mark not simply a public relations maneuver, but also an attempt to shift the legal or proximate cause of the damage from Hawaiian Electric to Maui County. If successful, that argument could get Hawaiian Electric off the hook for liability.
In its statement, Hawaiian Electric acknowledged one of its downed power lines started a fire in Lahaina at about 6:30 a.m.
“The Maui County Fire Department responded to this fire, reported it was ‘100% contained,’ left the scene and later declared it had been ‘extinguished,’” the company said.
It was only later, around 3 p.m., when Hawaiian Electric said its power lines had been de-energized for hours, that another fire flared up and went on to destroy Lahaina, the company said. The company said it hadn’t determined what caused the alleged second fire.
“If there was reason for the county firefighters to stay on the scene longer as a precautionary measure, the county might be found partially responsible for the damages,” Rabin said in an email.
But that might be different if, for example, the county shifted firefighters to other areas that were aflame, he said. In that case, Rabin said, “the county might argue that they were exercising municipal discretion in sending the firefighters elsewhere.”
Hawaiian Electric could be arguing the county was partly responsible for the destruction of Lahaina – or fully responsible “because if the firefighters had remained no damage (or minimal damage) would have ensued,” Rabin said.
“The legal term for the utility’s argument (for shifting liability) is proximate cause; that is, that the county was the proximate cause of the damage (because it was more at fault) and therefore that the utility should be shielded from liability,” Rabin said.