Maui County’s failure to sound sirens to warn residents of the danger of a fire that engulfed Lahaina last month was blamed in a lawsuit for the death of a woman who was unable to escape.
(Bloomberg) — Maui County’s failure to sound sirens to warn residents of the danger of a fire that engulfed Lahaina last month was blamed in a lawsuit for the death of a woman who was unable to escape.
The lawsuit is the first following the deadliest US fire in more than a century to target county and state governments over the emergency response effort, according to lawyers who filed the complaint Monday in Hawaii state court.
Maui officials have claimed the sirens would have been confused for tsunami warnings and that residents would have headed toward the mountain and the fire.
“Such logic cannot stand,” lawyers for the deceased woman’s father wrote in the lawsuit, because residents looking toward the mountains “would have been overwhelmed with the sight of the approaching fire and smoke. They would have had more time to flee.”
A multitude of lawsuits have been filed after the Maui fires, many of them alleging that Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc.’s power lines contributed to the fires that destroyed much of Lahaina and killed more than 100 people. The investor-owned utility is also a defendant in Monday’s suit.
The utility faces liabilities of almost $5 billion if it’s found negligent, according to investment research firm Capstone LLC. Complaints include claims for property damage and wrongful death based on arguments that the utility kept power on despite high-wind warnings, and that it didn’t follow through on safety upgrades for its equipment. Official investigations into the cause of the Lahaina fire are ongoing.
After Hawaiian Electric was previously sued by Maui County for damage to public property and other losses, the utility turned around and suggested the county’s fire department may be responsible for losing control of the blaze. While the utility acknowledged that its power lines started the original fire, a second blaze that swept through the town of Lahaina in the afternoon started hours after they had been turned off, the company said at the time.
Read More: Hawaii Utility Soars After Pointing Blame for Fire at County
A warning from officials would have given more time for Rebecca Rans, 56, who died when her escape paths were cut off by the fire, but Maui County didn’t have a prepared response relying on sirens or other strategies to advise residents to evacuate, according to Monday’s suit.
The state of Hawaii owns parcels of land that fed the fire that incinerated Rans’s home, according to the suit, which also seeks to hold a private landowner liable for nuisance and wrongful death over its alleged failure to mitigate fire risk with proper vegetation management.
“These lots not only contributed to the destruction” of Rans’s home, “but also endangered, obstructed, and caused the cut-off of escape routes for victims fleeing the fire,” according to the complaint.
The Hawaii Attorney General’s office said it is reviewing the complaint. Hawaiian Electric said it declines to comment on pending litigation. Officials with Maui County didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Read More: Hawaiian Electric Faces Suits by Investors, Maui Over Fires
The case is Wells v. Maui Electric Co. Ltd., 2CCV-23-0000251, Second Circuit Court in Hawaii.
(Updates with county’s suit against utility.)
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