Hawaii Gov. Josh Green is putting together a plan to help people who lost family members or were injured.

Gov. Josh Green is finalizing details of a Maui fire victim recovery fund that could be paid for by Hawaiian Electric, major Maui landowners and even Maui County, all of which have been named as defendants in lawsuits stemming from the Aug. 8 fire that killed at least 98 people and destroyed much of Lahaina.

The new fund would be used to compensate families of those who died in the blaze as well as those who were physically injured. It’s not intended to pay for lost homes, businesses or other property damage.

The program would be modeled after the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund, which was created by Congress in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The idea was to get money into the hands of those who were hurt or injured as quickly as possible in exchange for the promise they would not sue the federal government, the city of New York or any of the airlines involved.

Green has tapped Kenneth Feinberg, the former special master of the 9/11 fund, to help develop a methodology to come up with a fair compensation model for Maui fire victims.

Feinberg is considered the preeminent expert on the topic and has done similar work for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, Pulse Nightclub shooting and Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s currently working for the governor pro bono.

“No amount of money will ever bring a loved one back or will heal that ultimate wound, but I do want to help the families and the generations that follow that lost loved ones as much as possible,” Green said in an interview with Civil Beat. “I think this is not just the right thing to do, but it’s also appropriate.”

Hawaii public schools superintendent Keith Hayashi and Gov. Josh Green chat during a Hawaii State Department of Education announcement for reopening schools in West Maui on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, at Kapalua Airport in Lahaina. Lahainaluna High School, Lahaina Intermediate School and Princess Nahienena Elementary School will re-open after fall break. The Army Corps of Engineers will build a temporary replacement school for King Kamehameha III Elementary. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green is trying to build a recovery fund for victims of the Maui wildfires that would include contributions from Hawaiian Electric, which has been blamed for starting the fires.

Green said he’s not yet sure how much money will be in the fund, but that he anticipates that it will exceed $100 million. 

While the damage caused by Maui fires has been estimated to be around $6 billion, the governor said the intent of his fund is not to address the loss of homes or businesses that burned to the ground, but rather to focus on those who were physically hurt or killed during the blaze.

He said that if there’s money left over it could be used to pay for other “humanitarian aid,” such as scholarships for the children or grandchildren of those who perished in the fires. 

Secret Talks Over The Price Tag

Who will contribute to the fund, Green said, is the subject of private negotiations that are still ongoing. Green said he has some of his top advisors working on the proposal, including Andy Winer, a well-known political operative and former chief of staff of U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz. 

A downed Hawaiian Electric power line has been blamed for sparking the Aug. 8 blaze and the utility company has been named in more than four dozen lawsuits. Hawaiian Electric has pointed out that the cause of the afternoon fire which raced through Lahaina has not been determined although an early morning fire in the area was caused by a downed power line owned by the company.

Major landowners around Lahaina whose properties were overgrown with vegetation that helped fuel the fire have also been targeted by victims and their attorneys, including the state of Hawaii and Kamehameha Schools, which oversees a multibillion-dollar trust fund for Native Hawaiians. 

Maui County, which made numerous missteps during the disaster, including failing to activate emergency warning sirens, has also been named in lawsuits. The county has in turn filed suit against Hawaiian Electric.  

Green said he hopes that every defendant, as well as other stakeholders in the community, will contribute to the fund. He declined to say whether Hawaiian Electric, Kamehameha Schools or Maui County have made any financial commitments as of yet.

“We’ve had early indications that all parties to the lawsuits at least want to discuss this with us,” he said. “I’d rather finalize those discussions before commenting, but there are some very good signs that we will have partners to make this work.”

In a written statement to Civil Beat, Hawaiian Electric did not acknowledge that it has been in negotiation with the governor or others about  participating in a recovery fund.

“From the start, we have been actively pursuing collaborative solutions to wrap around the Lahaina community and those most impacted by the firestorm,” the statement said. “We are committed to continuing to work with others to find solutions that will best support those most impacted in our communities.”

Kamehameha Schools also did not address the governor’s proposal when asked about it by Civil Beat, saying in a written statement that, “We continue to listen closely to our many partners and stakeholders as we explore opportunities to support the community.”

Mahina Martin, a spokesperson for Maui County, did not respond to a request for comment.

Green will likely need to get buy-in from the Legislature if he plans to spend any sizable amount of taxpayer money on his proposal.

The wildfire in Lahaina is considered the deadliest in the U.S. in more than a century. (Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

House Speaker Scott Saiki said Green has had high-level discussions with legislators about the recovery fund, but that he’s still waiting to hear more details, such as who exactly will be paying into it and how much the state will expected to contribute.

“There are a lot of issues that need to be resolved for a program like this,” Saiki said. “I agree with the concept because you want to give victims an option to avoid protracted litigation. If a family is able to recover funds now then they should have that opportunity rather than wait one, two or three years for the litigation to end.”

The governor said he’s planning to make a major announcement about the recovery fund and what it might look like in a few weeks. 

While many of the specifics are still being worked out, one thing that he said should be expected is some sort of litigation waiver that would require those accepting money to drop their legal claims in exchange for cash. Green said that if such a waiver is required, fire victims will have the opportunity to see how much money they will receive from the fund before signing a release.

He added that a release would only be necessary if the amount being provided through the fund would “exceed what they would get otherwise” through litigation. 

“I want us to be generous and thoughtful about how much suffering has gone on,” Green said. “So my instruction to the team is that this has to be meaningful enough that it both is the right amount of help, but also saves them the struggle and frustrations of a long, drawn out legal process.” 

Transparency Is Key

When Green first floated the idea of creating a fire fund for victims during a Sept. 8 press conference, he said he was worried about “protecting our people from predatory business practices.” 

Among his concerns were land speculators seeking to purchase property from those who had lost their homes and mainland attorneys looking for clients to take on Hawaiian Electric and others they deemed responsible for the fires.

That worry has not gone away, he said this week. 

The point of the new recovery fund is to get money into the hands of fire victims as soon as practical and to ensure that most of it stays in their pockets rather than going to a large law firm’s bank account. 

“I don’t want people to have to lose 35% of their settlement to attorneys from the mainland,” Green said. “I really want to focus on keeping those resources there for the victims’ families.”

A memorial for those who died in the Lahaina fires. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Mike Morgan, a partner at Morgan & Morgan, one of the largest personal injury law firms in the country which is partnering with a Maui law firm on the Hawaiian Electric case, said he takes exception to Green’s description of mainland lawyers who have come into the state to file lawsuits on behalf of Maui fire victims. 

The purpose of the litigation, he said, is to help victims recover whatever emotional and financial losses they might have incurred during the disaster and hold those responsible accountable, particularly Hawaiian Electric. 

“This was not a terrorist attack,” Morgan said. “This was a third-party, man-made disaster and we know who caused it.” 

While he supports any plan that gets money to victims faster than through the courts, Morgan said that asking those people to give up their rights to sue raises red flags. 

Morgan said it’s critical that any fund that is set up has enough money to make sure victims don’t feel like they’re “trying to be bought off for a pittance to excuse the bad actors.” 

He said he’d also like to see more transparency surrounding the negotiations between the governor and the potential financial backers of the fund to see how much each entity is contributing.

“I think people are going to be suspicious of the intention and suspicious of the relationships,” Morgan said. “And I don’t think that’s unfair given the little information that’s been provided at this point.” 

Green said he intends to appoint a third-party trustee to oversee the fund, such as a retired judge or respected community member, to ensure that the parties, the state included, are “above reproach.” 

He noted that there are still a number of ongoing investigations, including one overseen by the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office, to determine the cause of the fire and analyze the government’s response. 

In the meantime, he said he’s hopeful that a recovery fund can provide some relief and accountability, especially if it includes money from all the groups that might have had a part in the fires and their spread.

“We are one ohana in this state,” Green said. “So everyone who is connected in any way to the fire should help us support people in their recovery, and I think that is exactly what is going to happen.” 

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

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