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Attorneys Assert That Cable TV and Phone Companies Share Responsibility in Maui Fires

by Ethan Kim
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Maui Fires Legal Battle

Following a visit to a warehouse where Hawaiian Electric Company stores power poles and electrical equipment that could be crucial to the investigation of last month’s devastating fires in Maui, attorneys representing Lahaina residents and business owners made a significant claim in court on Tuesday. They argued that cable TV and telephone companies bear a portion of the responsibility for the catastrophe due to their alleged role in overloading and destabilizing some of the utility poles.

According to the legal team, the cables were attached in a manner that subjected the poles to excessive tension, causing them to lean and eventually break during the strong winds on August 8th, when flames engulfed a substantial portion of Lahaina. Tragically, this event led to the loss of at least 115 lives and the destruction of over 2,000 structures.

LippSmith LLP has initiated a proposed class action lawsuit against Hawaii’s electric utility and Maui County in the state court of Hawaii. Attorney Graham LippSmith is currently seeking to expand the suit by including multiple telecommunications companies, as well as public and private landowners, as additional defendants.

“In an event of such magnitude, it takes time for all potentially responsible parties to be identified and brought to court. Our ongoing investigation has revealed a complex web of serious failures that collectively contributed to this dreadful tragedy,” stated MaryBeth LippSmith, co-founder of the Hawaii- and California-based law firm, during an interview.

This legal action draws parallels with Pacific Gas & Electric in California, which filed for bankruptcy in 2019 due to a series of devastating wildfires ignited by its neglected electrical grid in Northern California.

However, LippSmith firmly denied any notion that the firm is pursuing additional defendants merely as a contingency in case Hawaiian Electric declares bankruptcy. Rather, the primary objective is to uncover the root causes of multiple failures to prevent such tragedies in the future. The lawsuit seeks both damages and injunctive relief, including a court order mandating the defendants to address fire risk.

During their visit to the warehouse, LippSmith’s team, accompanied by officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, observed a pole that had snapped at its base and fallen to the ground, causing damage to the cross arms of a neighboring pole. Due to the poles being cut into sections, possibly with a chainsaw, it was difficult to ascertain whether one or multiple poles had broken. Moreover, they were not granted sufficient access to identify pole numbers.

Additionally, the cables had been removed from the poles, and Hawaiian Electric had only brought its own equipment to the warehouse. The current state of the equipment on display bore little resemblance to its condition after the fire. To analyze the situation, the attorneys and fire investigators relied on pre-fire photographs of the poles. These photos revealed no slack in the cable TV and telephone lines suspended between the poles at mid-height. The attorneys contend that this over-tensioning, coupled with an uneven weight distribution, caused the poles to lean downhill.

Charter Communications, the owner of cable provider Spectrum, declined to comment on the matter.

The proposed amended complaint continues to hold the power utilities responsible for the wildfires. It accuses them of failing to proactively shut off power despite exceptionally high winds and dry conditions, neglecting to replace old wooden poles that were too weak to withstand 105 mile per hour winds, as mandated by a 2002 national standard. Furthermore, it alleges that power lines were briefly recharged on August 8th in parts of Lahaina, obstructing evacuation routes while crews serviced downed lines.

The complaint also assigns responsibility to other parties, claiming that when old wooden power poles fell, they landed on highly flammable vegetation that had not been maintained by private and state landowners. This, in turn, “ignited the fire and fueled its cataclysmic spread.” It asserts that the county should have properly maintained vegetation, aggressively reduced nonnative plants, and activated sirens to warn people of the approaching fire.

Hawaiian Electric acknowledged last week that its power lines initiated the fire on the morning of August 8th. However, it shifted some blame to county firefighters, alleging that they declared the fire contained and left the scene, only for a second, even deadlier wildfire to erupt nearby, becoming the deadliest in over a century in the United States.

Hawaiian Electric, a for-profit, investor-owned, publicly traded utility that serves 95% of Hawaii’s electric customers, now faces a wave of new lawsuits seeking to hold it accountable. In response to a request for comment, a utility spokesperson stated that the company does not comment on pending litigation. The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, another defendant, echoed the same sentiment.

“We are awaiting guidance from our legal counsel before addressing,” said a Maui County spokesperson when questioned about the matter.

Ultimately, Maui County is placing the responsibility on the utility for failing to shut off power. An attorney at a California firm representing the county, John Fiske, asserted that the ultimate responsibility lies with Hawaiian Electric to adequately maintain its equipment and ensure that lines are deactivated when they are downed or at risk of being downed.


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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Maui Fires Legal Battle

What is the main issue in the legal battle concerning the Maui fires?

The primary issue in the legal battle surrounding the Maui fires is the claim made by lawyers representing Lahaina residents and business owners. They argue that cable TV and telephone companies share responsibility for the devastating fires because they allegedly overloaded and destabilized some of the utility poles, contributing to the disaster.

Who has filed the proposed class action lawsuit related to the Maui fires?

The proposed class action lawsuit has been filed by LippSmith LLP, a law firm based in Hawaii and California. Attorney Graham LippSmith is leading the legal action, which initially targeted Hawaii’s electric utility and Maui County but now seeks to include multiple telecommunications companies and public and private landowners as defendants.

What are the key allegations against the power utilities in the lawsuit?

The lawsuit accuses the power utilities of several key failures, including failing to proactively shut off power despite high winds and dry conditions, neglecting to replace old wooden poles that were not sturdy enough to withstand the winds, briefly recharging power lines on the day of the fire, and obstructing evacuation routes while crews serviced downed lines.

How do the lawyers argue that cable TV and telephone companies are responsible for the fires?

The lawyers contend that the cables from these companies were attached to the utility poles in a way that placed excessive tension on them. This tension caused the poles to lean and eventually break during the strong winds on the day of the fires. The attorneys cite pre-fire photographs of the poles, which showed no slack in the cable TV and telephone lines suspended between them at mid-height, as evidence of their claims.

What is the ultimate goal of the legal action related to the Maui fires?

The legal action seeks both damages and injunctive relief. It aims to hold the defendants accountable for their alleged roles in the disaster and obtain compensation for the victims. Additionally, it seeks a court order mandating the defendants to address fire risk to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Is there any response from the telecommunications companies and other defendants named in the lawsuit?

Charter Communications, the owner of cable provider Spectrum, declined to comment on the matter. However, there is no detailed information provided regarding the responses of other defendants such as public and private landowners.

How has Hawaiian Electric responded to the allegations against them?

Hawaiian Electric acknowledged that its power lines initiated the fire on the morning of the incident. However, the company also shifted some blame to county firefighters, alleging that they declared the fire contained and left the scene, only for a second, even deadlier wildfire to erupt nearby.

What is the broader context of this legal battle in relation to past wildfires?

The legal battle in Maui is reminiscent of the situation faced by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in California, which filed for bankruptcy in 2019 due to wildfires caused by its electrical grid. LippSmith LLP, the law firm leading the Maui case, has emphasized that their goal is to prevent such tragedies in the future rather than seeking additional defendants in the event of bankruptcy.

Are there any statements from government authorities or agencies involved in the case?

The utility company, Hawaiian Electric, and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources have refrained from commenting on the pending litigation. Maui County has placed responsibility on the utility for failing to shut off power and has stated that the ultimate responsibility rests with Hawaiian Electric to maintain its equipment properly.

What impact has the Maui fires had on the affected community?

The Maui fires had a devastating impact, resulting in the loss of at least 115 lives and the destruction of over 2,000 structures in Lahaina. The legal battle represents an effort to seek justice for the victims and to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.

More about Maui Fires Legal Battle

  • [Maui Fires Legal Battle](Link to relevant news article)
  • [LippSmith LLP Law Firm](Link to the official website of the law firm)
  • [Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Bankruptcy](Link to information on PG&E’s bankruptcy due to wildfires)
  • [Hawaiian Electric Company](Link to the official website of Hawaiian Electric)
  • [Maui County](Link to the official website of Maui County)
  • [Charter Communications](Link to the official website of Charter Communications)
  • [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives](Link to relevant information about the agency’s involvement in the investigation)
  • [Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources](Link to the official website of the department)

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