Score of cases have been removed from Maui state court to federal court on Oahu. An attorney says it’s unfair to expect victims to have to travel for trials.

Maui wildfire victims are fighting attempts to remove cases from state court in Maui to Honolulu federal court, marking the latest salvo in the battle to determine which court will hear what could be thousands of cases related to the Aug. 8 fires. 

Lawyers for Amir Hossein Sheikhan, Tina Sikying Leung and their minor child, who were forced to live in their car after fires destroyed their Lahaina home, argue that a federal law invoked by defendants to remove the case to federal court simply doesn’t apply to the Maui fires. As a result, they assert, the federal court has no jurisdiction over their case — or other similar matters.

The outcome of a motion to send a Maui fire case back to state court will likely determine what happens to scores of such cases – plus what lawyers expect will be upward of 1,000 suits yet to be filed. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The family’s lawyer, Jesse Creed, filed their motion Monday in response to an attempt by Charter Communications, which operates in Hawaii as Spectrum, to remove the family’s complaint to federal court. Hawaiian Electric, Kamehameha Schools and other defendants have followed Spectrum, seeking to remove scores of cases filed against them to federal court. 

The outcome of Sheikhan’s motion to send the case back to state court will likely determine what happens to all of these cases – plus what lawyers say could be upward of 1,000 suits yet to be filed. In a declaration filed with his motion to remand, Creed said there are more than 5,000 clients who have retained lawyers to bring lawsuits arising from the fires.

“It cannot be overstated that the Maui Fire cases should be adjudicated in Maui state court,” Creed said in his motion, which he filed in federal court on Monday. “There is no benefit to ‘consolidating’ the fire cases in this court because they had been largely venued in Maui state court prior to Defendants’ recent mass improper removal — with many more to be filed there.”

In an interview, Creed said it’s unfair to expect Maui victims to fly to Oahu to be present or testify at trials involving their claims.

“It’s a Maui tragedy involving Maui citizens who should have a Maui jury be the conscience of the community on their claims,” Creed said. “I think that’s fundamentally why the plaintiffs want their cases to be heard on Maui.”

Federal Courts Have Limited Jurisdiction

At the center of the fight over venue is a federal law called the Multiparty, Multiforum Trial Jurisdiction Act. 

Normally, State courts have general jurisdiction, including power to hear wildfire property damage and wrongful death cases. By contrast, federal courts have limited jurisdiction, with the power to handle mostly claims arising under the U.S. Constitution and specific federal laws. 

The citizenship of the parties can also play a role in whether a federal court has jurisdiction. If parties on each side of a controversy are from entirely different states, for instance, the federal court can have “diversity jurisdiction” if there’s enough money at stake.

According to these general rules governing civil cases, only the state court would have jurisdiction over Maui fire cases. 

But 2002’s Multiparty, Multiforum Trial Jurisdiction Act expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts to hear mass disaster cases – specifically disasters arising from a “single accident, where at least 75 natural persons have died in the accident at a discrete location.” In such cases, it’s enough for at least one defendant and one plaintiff to reside in different states, which the statute calls “minimal diversity.”

Like Spectrum, Hawaiian Electric invoked the act earlier this month when it moved several dozen suits filed against Hawaiian Electric subsidiaries from state court to federal court. 

“Coordinating all of the litigation arising on account of the Lahaina Fire in a single court, to the degree feasible, is essential,” Hawaiian Electric’s attorney, Joachim Cox, wrote in the company’s notice of removal to federal court. “It will create efficiencies for the court system and the parties. 

“The United States District Court for the District of Hawaii draws statewide juries and is well equipped to handle the volume of cases that have and will be filed,” Cox continued. “Because it promotes efficiency and judicial economy for all of the actions arising out of the Lahaina Fire to be heard in the same forum, the Hawaiian Electric Defendants, following the actions of other defendants, remove this action to federal court.”

In a statement, Hawaiian Electric said, “This is a procedural step that we believe will provide a more consistent and efficient path forward for all parties involved in litigation related to the events of August 8.”

The company’s lawyer argues that Congress meant to give federal courts jurisdiction over disasters like the Maui fires when it passed the Multiparty, Multiforum Trial Jurisdiction Act. 

“The Hawaiian Electric Defendants’ decision to remove this case to federal court in order to consolidate the actions arising out of the Lahaina Fire in a single forum — Hawaii District Court — is exactly the sort of action contemplated, and effectuated, by the MMTJA,” Cox wrote. 

Is Lahaina More Like A Metro Area Or Nightclub

The plaintiffs disagree. They say the act simply doesn’t apply to the Maui wildfires. In this case, they argue, the Maui fires weren’t a “single accident” that occurred “at a discrete location.”

Although the statute doesn’t define “discrete location,” federal courts have weighed in. In separate cases, a Rhode Island nightclub destroyed by a fire was considered a discrete location but the New Orleans metro area destroyed by Hurricane Katrina was not. The plaintiffs argue that Lahaina is more like the New Orleans metro area than a single nightclub.

The plaintiffs also note that that the act’s legislative history indicates the act was designed to deal with “plane crashes, train wrecks, and hotel fires,” involving victims from different places.

“It defies logic and unbroken federal case law that the entire town of Lahaina itself can be considered a ‘discrete location,’” Creed wrote.

U.S. District Court Judge Jill Otake, shown here when she was being confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2018, has been asked to rule by the end of January on whether Maui fires cases will be heard in state or federal court. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2018)

There’s another factor to consider, says Honolulu trial lawyer Mark Davis, who represents victims of the Maui fires. Under the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the state of Hawaii, which has also been named as a defendant, cannot be brought against its will before a federal court. Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez has said the state will not waive its immunity in this case. 

The result, Davis said, is many nearly identical cases would go forward in both state and federal court.

“This procedural move is going to take a huge number of cases and multiply them by two,” Davis said.

It’s not clear when U.S. District Judge Jill Otake will rule on the matter. However, along with the motion to remand the case to state court, plaintiffs lawyer Creed asked Otake to rule by January and to require defendants to file a single “omnibus brief” in opposition to the motion to save time.

“This case squarely presents the threshold legal issue that will apply to all other removed cases pertaining to the Maui Fires; namely, whether the Lahaina Fire constitutes ‘a single accident, where at least 75 natural persons have died in the accident at a discrete location,’” Creed wrote. “Because Defendants cannot establish this, the Court lacks jurisdiction and must remand.” 

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

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