Hawaiian Electric Plunges as Lawyers Probe Cause of Deadly Maui Wildfires

Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. plunged by a record on concern that its power lines may be linked to the deadly Maui wildfires.

(Bloomberg) — Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. plunged by a record on concern that its power lines may be linked to the deadly Maui wildfires. 

Shares fell 36% to $20.71 as of 2:45 p.m. New York time after earlier tumbling as much as 42%. Hawaiian Electric, which operates the utility that serves Maui, has come under criticism for not turning off power despite weather forecasters’ warnings that dry, gusty winds could create critical fire conditions. Plaintiffs attorneys are homing in on the utility’s equipment as a possible source of ignition and plan to file lawsuits this week. 

Officials say they haven’t determined what triggered the blazes and Hawaiian Electric said it doesn’t have information on the possible cause. Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said Friday that she was opening an investigation into how authorities responded to the wildfires, which killed more than 90 people. 

Hawaiian Electric is working “to safely restore electricity, assess damage, remove debris and support our families, neighbors and employees,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “At this early stage the causes haven’t been determined. We will work closely with the state and county as they conduct their review.”

“Fingers are being pointed at the utility,” Wells Fargo analyst Jonathan Reeder said Sunday in a note to clients, lowering his price target for Hawaiian Electric. State law appears to revolve around a “reasonableness of care” standard when determining negligence, which is a lower burden for plaintiffs to prove in court than a gross negligence standard, Reeder said. 

Read more: In Search for Cause of Hawaii Fires, Lawyers Probe Power Lines

The risk of power lines sparking wildfires has grown across parts of the US as climate change creates hotter and drier conditions. California’s largest utility, PG&E Corp., was driven into bankruptcy in 2019 after its broken equipment sparked some of the worst wildfires in state history. Since then, power companies in California, Oregon and Nevada have decided to preemptively shut off power when high, dry winds could spark catastrophic fires.

Attorneys with Watts Guerra, Singleton Schreiber, and Frantz Law Group said they have been collecting evidence, interviewing eyewitnesses and reviewing reports that indicate that damaged power infrastructure owned by Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. created the spark for the flames. 

“All evidence — videos, witness accounts, burn progression, and utility equipment remaining — points to Hawaiian Electric’s equipment being the ignition source of the fire that devastated Lahaina,” said Mikal Watts, a Puerto Rico-based plaintiffs lawyer at Watts Guerra who has won millions of dollars in settlements in other wildfire cases, including against California utility giant PG&E Corp. 

Plaintiff lawyers often dispatch representatives of their offices to sign up clients in the wake of wildfire disasters.

Although California utilities like PG&E Corp. preemptively shut down power when dry winds elevate wildfire risks, it’s tricky to do the same in Maui because it’s a tourist area, said Mojtaba Sadegh, an associate professor of civil engineering at Boise State University.

“The de-electrification is not as easy as in remote areas of California, because they know, they understand, they have been living there and they probably even welcome that loss of electricity, versus a tourist that’s enjoying their vacation,” he said. 


–With assistance from Eric Roston.

(Updates with Hawaiian Electric statement in fourth paragraph)

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.