Family of Maui wildfire victim file negligence lawsuit against Hawaii and major landholder

Fires ripped the town of Lahaina, killing Rebecca Rans amongst 115 others (Jae C. Hong AP Photo)
Fires ripped the town of Lahaina, killing Rebecca Rans amongst 115 others (Jae C. Hong AP Photo)

The family of a woman who died in a wildfire on Maui has filed a negligence lawsuit against the county, state of Hawaii and one of Hawaii’s largest landowners, Bishop Estate.

This is the first lawsuit that has named both Maui County and the state of Hawaii as defendants in a case relating to the devastating fires.

Rebecca Rans, 57, died after trying to flee a wildfire during the inferno that ripped through the towns of Lahaina and Kula last month. She died alongside her long-term partner Doug Gloege.

Ms Rans and Mr Gloege are amongst at least 115 people killed in the inferno, making it one of the US’ deadliest fires in more than a century. While the county released an official list, naming 388 people to be missing last month, many speculate that the number is even higher.

Harold Wells, the father of Ms Rans, filed a wrongful death complaint on Monday. They are suing on the grounds that officials failed to upkeep their fire-prone property. The filed lawsuit also names utility company, Hawaiian Electric, which has already been sued many times. The company acknowledges that their electric poles sparked a first fire that was contained, but denies any responsibility for the entire inferno.

Hawaiian Electric previously claimed it shut off its power ahead of the fire escalating, de-energising them six hours before the second fire in the afternoon, but the complaint argues that they didn’t turn it off far enough in advance. They also argue that the company knew about fire hazards back in 2014, but it was not until last year that they put in a request for more money to harden its power grid.

President Biden has since pledged $95m via the US Department of Energy to Hawaiian Electric to strengthen the power grid in Maui.

The family did not expect that they would be filing a lawsuit surrounding Ms Rans’ death, but after they heard Herman Andaya, Maui’s Emergency Management Agency Administrator, tell CBS News that he did not regret not sounding the sirens to warn residents about the wildfires, they suddenly felt the obligation to find for justice.

"I feel like what we’re doing is not just about my sister, but all the people who this happened to. And the people who are still not found," said Kathleen Hennricks, Rans’ sister.

Mr Wells added this to the lawsuit, claiming that if Maui County or the state of Hawaii had sounded alarms to warn citizens of the fires, his daughter could have been saved.

Officials from Maui County have rebutted this claim, arguing that they chose not to sound alarms because they thought it would confuse residents with tsunami alarms, who may have fled to higher ground where the blaze was worse.

The lawsuit, filed by Rebecca Rans’ father, is arguing that a lot could have been done to prevent the fire from escalating (The Associated Press)
The lawsuit, filed by Rebecca Rans’ father, is arguing that a lot could have been done to prevent the fire from escalating (The Associated Press)

The lawsuit responded to this argument, saying “such logic cannot stand,” and attested that fleeing residents would have seen the flames and smoke, and understood what danger they were in.

"Why weren’t there alarms sounded?... She had severe arthritis in her feet. She could barely walk, let alone run," also said Ms Hennricks during a news conference on Tuesday.

Another argument inserted within the lawsuit also names a large plot of land owned by Maui County, which did not have acceptable regulations on electrical equipment, nor had proper vegetation maintenance, which ultimately led to the fire spreading. This particular area of land was where Ms Rans’ house was situated.

“They should have been able to get out,” said Anne Andrews, a lawyer for the family of Rebecca Rans, 57. “There was a total failure to groom that land and failure to maintain that land.”

“As someone who has spent nearly my entire life in Hawaii, I have witnessed firsthand how the Island of Maui has been taken over by invasive, non-native and flammable grasses and brush vegetation," another family lawyer, Jim Bickerton, added.

Ms Rans and her partner’s body was found side by side the day after the inferno dissipated. Ms Rans’ body was so badly hurt the officials did not recommend her family view her remains.

Ms Rans moved to Maui over two decades ago, where she raised her three children. She is said to have been friends with many people in Lahaina, working in gift shops and taking hula lessons, as described in court records.

As the lawsuit claims, there are many actions that could have been put in place to stop the fire from seriously escalating. A National Weather Service warning was announced on 4 August, four days before the inferno, displaying similar conditions under which previous wildfires have surged.

Hawaii’s attorney general, Anne E. Lopez,  received the wrongful death complaint on Tuesday and is reviewing it, a spokesman said.