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.

Burned stores reveal the ferocity of the fire that killed at least 115 people and destroyed some 2,200 structures in Lahaina. Hawaiian Electric Industries shares soared on Monday after the company tried to shift blame for the fire onto Maui County (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“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.

Late Sunday, Hawaiian Electric shot back with a statement criticizing the county for filing its suit.

“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.

HEI Hawaiian Electric Building3. 1 june 2016
Hawaiian Electric Co. shot back against Maui County on Sunday. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

Robert Rabin, a professor who teaches tort law at Stanford Law School, said that it’s impossible to determine with confidence who might be to blame given few available facts.

“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.

Zahr Said, who teaches tort law at the University of Washington School of Law, agreed Hawaiian Electric could be seeking to shift not just blame in a general sense but legal liability.

“I think that’s a possible answer,” she said. “Without more facts, I can’t know.”

Rick Fried, a Honolulu lawyer who is representing Maui County, rejected Hawaiian Electric’s statement.

“They’ve indicated there was a second source of the fire,” Fried said. “If that’s true, where’s the proof of that?”

“We still feel comfortable with the allegations in our complaint,” he added.

Said, the University of Washington tort expert, said in actuality there’s likely more than one party to blame for the destruction of Lahaina.

“It must have taken multiple failures along the way,” she said. “It’s just so big. It’s just so massive.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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