The complaint by the family of a deceased Lahaina resident is the first to name property owners like Kamehameha Schools and Maui County along with the electric company as defendants.

The family of a woman who died in last month’s lethal Lahaina wildfire has brought a wrongful death suit that includes the state’s largest private landowner and major benefactor for Native Hawaiian children, alleging its failure to control dry grass on its property was negligent and a cause of the woman’s death. 

The complaint, filed Monday in state court on Maui by the family of Rebecca Rans, names the trustees of the Estate of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, also known as Kamehameha Schools, as defendants, marking the first time a lawsuit related to the Maui fires has blamed a private landowner for causing a death by failing to control dry vegetation on its property. 

The suit alleges Kamehameha Schools owns several large land parcels that facilitated the spread of the fire that destroyed Rans’ home at 390 Paeohi St. in Lahaina “and also cut off escape paths or routes, sending Rebecca Rans in flight and ultimately resulting in her death.”

The complaint includes similar allegations against the state and Maui County, which the suit calls “Landowner Defendants” along with the Bishop Estate trustees. The overarching idea is that the defendants knew unmanaged grasses on their land presented a fire hazard and did nothing to mitigate it.

A lawsuit filed Monday alleges major landowners were negligent for not cutting dry vegetation that fueled fires that destroyed Lahaina, Maui, on Sept. 8. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

“As a direct and proximate result of Landowner Defendants’ carelessness and negligence, Rebecca Rans suffered death,” the suit asserts. 

The defendants provided little substantive response on Tuesday.

The state Attorney General’s Office said it had just received the complaint and was reviewing it.

Rick Fried, a Honolulu attorney representing Maui County in fire-related litigation, said, “I think as to the county, it’s misplaced,” but declined to comment further on the Rans complaint.

Kamehameha Schools on Tuesday issued a statement focusing on its role in the community.

“At this time, our hearts are with all affected by the Maui fires and their ‘ohana,” the statement said. “Kamehameha Schools is an indigenous educational institution. We are committed to restoring our Native Hawaiian people and culture through education, which includes stewarding and uplifting the health and resiliency of our ‘āina (lands) and Native communities. As many aspects of the fires are still under investigation, we have no further comment at this time.”

The Lahaina fires, which destroyed approximately 2,300 structures and killed at least 115 people, have spawned at least 17 lawsuits, mostly focusing on Hawaiian Electric for allegedly causing the fires by failing to properly maintain its electric distribution system and by failing to de-energize its power lines when hurricane-force winds began making the lines fall on Aug. 8. Maui County also has been blamed for failing to sound alarm systems warning the public.

The latest suit, filed by The Bickerton Law Group of Honolulu and Andrews & Thornton of Newport Beach, California, also cites those as causes of Rans’ death.

But the idea of spreading responsibility to landowners for failing to remove dried grass is new. As the lawsuit notes, the dangers posed dry grasslands to areas including Lahaina have been known for years.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Bridget Morgan-Bickerton said the unmanaged dry grasses on the defendants’ properties were equivalent to a gasoline tank waiting to ignite, and that the defendants knew this. 

“Everyone was on notice,” Morgan-Bickerton said of the landowners. “They should have done something about it years ago.”

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

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