TV and telephone companies were partly to blame for the wildfires that killed more than 100 people in Hawaii in August, lawyers have claimed.
Acting for Lahaina residents and business owners, legal services firm LippSmith LLP has filed a proposed class action against Hawaii’s electric utility and Maui County, which alleges that the fires may have been started when overloaded utility poles were brought down by strong winds on August 8.
The wildfires on the island caused widespread devastation to Maui, claiming more than 100 lives, while more than 100 are still reportedly missing.
According to a report by the Associated Press last week, lawyers noted the cables were attached in a way that put too much tension on the poles, causing them to lean and break in the winds.
Attorney Graham LippSmith has filed a proposed class action against Hawaii’s electric utility and Maui County in state court in Hawaii, and asked the court to add multiple telecommunications companies and public and private landowners to the original suit.
“In a disaster of this magnitude, it takes some time for all the potentially responsible parties to come into focus and be brought into court. Our investigation thus far shows a constellation of many serious failures that together led to this horrible tragedy," MaryBeth LippSmith, co-founder of the Hawaii-and California-based firm, said in an interview last week.
AP reported that members of LippSmith’s team visited a warehouse where Hawaiian Electric Company houses power poles and electrical equipment, together with officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The visitors found a pole that had snapped at the base and fallen to the ground, damaging the cross arms of a neighboring pole. According to LippSmith, sections of poles had been cut up, apparently with a chainsaw, meaning they could not tell if one pole or several had snapped, and they said they were not allowed close enough to identify pole numbers.
The company also said that communications cables had also been stripped off the poles and Hawaiian Electric only brought its own equipment to the warehouse.
According to LippSmith, there was no slack in the cable TV and telephone lines that ran between the poles, mid-height, potentially causing over-tensioning and the uneven distribution of weight which would cause the poles to lean downhill.
Earlier this month, Hawaiian Electric confirmed that its power lines started a fire on the morning of August 8. However, it blamed county firefighters for declaring the blaze contained and then leaving the scene, only to have a second wildfire break out nearby.
The company has said it will not comment any further on pending litigation.
Maui County has reportedly blamed Hawaiian Electric for failing to shut off power, with John Fiske, an attorney at a California firm that’s representing the county, stating the ultimate responsibility rests with Hawaiian Electric to properly keep up its equipment, and make sure lines are not live when they’re downed or could be downed.