UPDATED: The county says HECO should have better managed its lines and shut off the power ahead of the winds. But the county has also been sued for not doing enough.

Add Maui County to the growing list of parties suing Hawaiian Electric Co. for the role that the utility’s power lines may have played in the Aug. 8 fires that burned across Maui, devastating Lahaina and destroying homes in Kula.

The county filed suit Thursday in state Circuit Court seeking unspecified damages from the utility that powers most of the state. Preliminary estimates have put the cost to rebuild Lahaina at more than $5 billion.

“This destruction could have been avoided” had HECO de-energized its power lines across Maui after the National Weather Service predicted “damaging” winds that could knock down power lines, the complaint states. It also lists the HECO companies that operate on Maui and Hawaii island — Maui Electric Co. and Hawaii Electric Light Co., respectively.

HECO trucks form a line under burned electric poles
Just north of Lahaina on Route 30 HECO crews begin to repair the downed electricity poles following the disastrous fire last week. Maui County is now suing the utility for its role in the fires across Maui on Aug. 8. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

No official cause has been released yet for the Maui fires, although video footage from the day of the blazes show dangling power lines over burning brush in the areas where the fires started. 

The county suit states that HECO “​​had a duty to properly maintain and repair the electric transmission lines, and other equipment including utility poles associated with their transmission of electricity, and to keep vegetation properly trimmed and maintained so as to prevent contact with overhead power lines and other electric equipment.”

The utility’s “failures to do so,” Maui’s suit states, “constituted negligence and would expose members of the general public to a serious risk of injury or death.”

In a statement Thursday, HECO said its “primary focus in the wake of this unimaginable tragedy has been to do everything we can to support not just the people of Maui, but also Maui County.”

“We are very disappointed that Maui County chose this litigious path while the investigation is still unfolding,” the utility said of the suit.

It’s one of at least 11 lawsuits filed against HECO in state court since the fires occurred. The Lahaina blaze alone burned more than 2,000 acres, destroying numerous towns and businesses and killing at least 115 people. The county suit notes that Lahaina town was a significant cultural and historic landmark.

It also adds that “to say Lahaina is a tourist destination is an understatement.” The suit lists loss of tax revenues as well as the loss of natural resources, damage to infrastructure, water contamination and several other damages.

The county, however, has been listed as a co-defendant in at least one other suit filed against HECO. The county also had a duty to address the threat of wildfires to protect Maui residents but failed to do so, that separate suit contends.

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

Read Maui County’s lawsuit against HECO here:

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