Survivors are being asked to make decisions about legal representation just weeks after a deadly blaze ripped through Lahaina.

On Aug. 8, Kevin Williams ran from his Lahaina home barefoot with his wife, two kids and their dog, barely escaping the fast-moving flames.

Now three weeks later, he’s searching for a lawyer who might help make him whole again after losing two houses to the fire.

Williams was one of about 50 people — many of them survivors of the deadly Lahaina blaze — who attended a question and answer session in Kahului on Sunday that was put on by a group of law firms, including Takatani Agaran Jorgensen and Wildman and Morgan & Morgan, which bills itself as one of the country’s largest injury law practices.

The ruins of Lahania town eerily rests calmly as a large wave breaks over Lahaina Harbor breakwall Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Maui. Two days prior, a large, fast-moving wildfire consumed this historical West Maui town. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Lahaina suffered extensive damage on Aug. 8 amid hurricane-force winds, killing at least 115 people. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The purpose of the event was to provide information about a recent lawsuit the firms had filed against Hawaiian Electric Co. and its Maui subsidiary, which are blamed for starting the fire that destroyed Lahaina and claimed at least 115 lives.

But lawyers also sought to sign up prospective clients, such as Williams, to help bolster their case and increase their share of what could eventually be a multibillion-dollar legal settlement.

For Williams, the whole process has been surreal, he said, especially given how recent the disaster is.

“It just feels very uncomfortable,” he said.

Dozens of lawyers have descended on the island, and already more than a dozen lawsuits have been filed against HECO, including one by Maui County.

But the jockeying for clients is expected to continue, at least for the foreseeable future.

Mike Morgan, of Morgan & Morgan, acknowledged this awkward reality head on during Sunday’s meeting. His firm has been involved in complex litigation concerning a number of high profile disasters, including against Pacific Gas & Electric, which was found liable for the 2018 Camp fire in California that killed 85 people.

He said speed is an unfortunate necessity when dealing with mass casualty events and one that will pay dividends in the long run.

“The question that we’ve gotten over and over is why now — why do we need to start with these things now, why do we have to talk about litigation now when we’re still grieving,” he said.

“We’ve seen this in tragedies that were avoidable, that were preventable and had unbelievable losses. What we know from that experience is that the No. 1 thing that happens in these cases is that the farther we get from the event the less evidence we have.”

Senator Gil Agaran during WAM FInance County meeting.
State Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran is among the attorneys involved in a lawsuit against HECO. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Private investigators representing a number of different law firms have already arrived on Maui to inspect HECO’s equipment that is believed to have been involved in starting the brush fires that consumed Lahaina and destroyed 19 homes in Kula.

Attorneys at Sunday’s event also encouraged survivors to keep journals of their experiences and start building lists of their belongings that were consumed in the fire so that they can get the maximum return on their insurance claims and any future legal settlements.

Morgan & Morgan is working closely with Takatani Agaran Jorgensen and Wildman, a Maui law firm. Among the partners are Tony Takatani, who until recently worked as a county liaison for U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, and Gil Keith-Agaran, a state senator who represents Wailuku, Kahului, Waihe‘e, Waikapu Mauka and Wai‘ehu.

The firms have also partnered with Panish Shea Boyle Ravipudi out of Los Angeles.

The attendees were told that they wouldn’t need to pay anything out of pocket to the firm for representation and that payment would be contingent upon a successful settlement. When pressed to answer how much of a percentage the firms would take, the attorneys said 33%.

To Leka Anitema, a Maui resident who has been helping family members displaced by the Lahaina fires, that number was important because there are many other firms vying for clients, including those that might take less of a percentage.

She said what’s critical is that each person makes their own decision about who they want representing them and whether they trust that firm to do the best job for them while also holding those responsible for the wildfires accountable.

“The community is window shopping,” Anitema said. “That’s all this is.”

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

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