“You see the beautiful blues and greens of the ocean next to the gray ash. And it renders me speechless,” says Tony Takitani. “The damage is in Lahaina. But I don't care where you go on the island, people are suffering. The stories that come out – the individual stories – are heartbreaking. Children, adults, their grandparents. Every day is another story that just makes it worse and worse.”
Born on the island of Maui, Takitani is a personal injury lawyer who has been practicing for over 30 years. For him, the rampant wildfire that erupted into an inferno and consumed the town of Lahaina on August 8, 2023 is soul-crushing. Ten days later the historic Maui whaling village had been transformed into an ashen moonscape by the flames, the death toll of those killed by the Lahaina fire stood at 115, the touristic and economic heart of Lahaina had been reduced to embers, and the whereabouts of over 850 people remained unaccounted. “The horrific devastation that has hit our island is almost unimaginable,” he says.
Combining Legal Power
It became immediately apparent to Takitani that the survivors of the Lahaina fires and the families of those lost in the carnage were in desperate need of immediate legal help. How does a person who has lost their home and all its contents begin to grapple with issues like getting their mortgage payments suspended, deciphering whether they need to pay their property taxes and utilities, or how to retrieve banking documentation destroyed in the fire? Additionally, claims for loss of property, personal injury and wrongful death were soon to be brought.
But with limited resources, Takitani recognized that his small firm of Takitani, Agaran, Jorgensen, & Wildman were not in a position to take on this task alone. “So I've asked my friends that have a lot of experience and people that I truly trust to join us in this potential litigation,” he notes.
So when Takitani, Agaran, Jorgensen, & Wildman connected with Ben Wilson, head of Morgan and Morgan's wildfire litigation group and esteemed plaintiff attorney Brian Panish of Panish | Shea | Boyle | Ravipudi, the small Maui firm’s legal weight and reach was bolstered by representation from two firms with considerable resources, and a reputation for taking on behemoth corporations in the wake of some of the country’s worst environmental disasters. They also brought with them a deep knowledge of the complexities of fire litigation.
Experience Fighting Fires
“This was not an act of God. This is a man-made disaster. This could be prevented,” observes Ben Wilson. “When I first saw this horrible thing on the news, I immediately went to what I saw when I was working on the Northern California wildfires in Paradise. The videos that I got from that, you could almost put them side by side.” With lawyers that are regularly appointed to co-leadership positions as well as to executive committee and steering committees, Morgan & Morgan has served as Plaintiffs Co-Lead Counsel in the Porter Ranch lawsuit in California, and helped settle personal injury claims for victims of the Aliso Canyon gas well blowout, in which a total of $1.8 billion was recovered from Sempra and SoCalGas. And in the Merrimack Valley case Morgan & Morgan was instrumental in reaching a $143 million class action settlement between Columbia Gas and the thousands of people affected by the company's 2018 pipeline disaster in Massachusetts.
While Morgan & Morgan has also represented victims of the 2017 Northern California wildfires, Brian Panish has been involved in the Woolsey Fire litigation, the Southern California Fire Cases litigation and the 2017 North Bay Fires in Northern California. “So we've been involved in those litigations representing thousands of clients and been able to get good results,” Panish notes.
Launching the Lawsuit
Combining their wealth of experience in fire litigation, Ben Wilson, Brian Panish and their teams deployed experts and investigators to uncover the cause of the fire. While factors such as climate change, a bad summer drought this year on Maui, and high winds from Hurricane Dora undoubtedly contributed to the spread of the blaze, testimony and video footage from Lahaina residents suggest that a utility pole broke in the high winds, snapping a power line. The sparks allegedly started a brush fire on August 8, 2023 at 6:37 a.m. close to Lahainaluna Road. The wildfire spread rapidly. Within hours, Lahaina had been destroyed.
On August 17 Morgan & Morgan and co-counsel filed a class-action lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric Industries, Hawaiian Electric Company, Hawai’i Electric Light Company and Maui Electric Company - which serves 95% of Hawaiian residents - for alleged negligence in causing the Lahaina Fire. The lawsuit alleges that the fire was started when energized overhead transmission lines and supporting wooden utility poles failed, sparking fires that spread rapidly due to high winds and tinder-like vegetation.
Hawaiians also want to be assured that their utility companies were acting and investing responsibly. “I believe the winds were survivable for the poles had they been maintained, properly constructed and watched. Some poles, over time – there's problems. That's why they have maintenance programs; that's why they're supposed to clean the shrubbery in the bushes around it to not ignite the fire. But unfortunately it doesn't appear that that was done, and it was just Armageddon,” says Wilson.
Aside from the cause of the fire, questions have arisen as to why the island’s warning system failed to alert residents of the pending danger. As the fires destroyed in excess of 2,000 buildings, all 80 sirens in Maui County remained silent. “I think we‘re going to have to look at Hawaiian electric, to look at the state and the county Maui for their responses to what happened, and if there's any other potential private landowners that may have contributed to the source of ignition. Those all have to be vetted and looked into,” says Panish.
Uniquely Built to Manage Large Volume
Building a coalition to hold the responsible parties for the cause of the Lahaina fires and managing this litigation is going to take time, according to Panish. “This is going to be the largest case in the state of Hawaii, probably, in the number of people that have been affected.”
As the consolidation of these cases under a single judge is anticipated, having the deepest financial and expert resources at this stage to move the litigation forward is important. Smaller law firms often do not have the bandwidth or expertise to gather discovery from defendants and witnesses and to assemble the qualified cross-functional teams of experts needed to establish the cause and origin of the Lahaina fires. This will involve an army of electrical and mechanical engineers, wood scientists, and utility experts. Teams that specialize in evidence preservation and in investigating individual plaintiff cases will prove invaluable – but costly.
Large law companies are uniquely structured to effectively manage a massive influx of individual cases in any given mass tort or class action suit associated with fire litigation. For example, Morgan and Morgan not only has the resources and the expertise at the highest leadership level, but are also able to engage lawyers across the country to assist in documentation review, deposition preparation, fact sheets, medical record reviews, and the litigation of these cases. With these invaluable resources, cases can move more efficiently through the process of discovery.
A Coalition of Local Knowledge and Large-Firm Expertise
Local Maui lawyers are expected to be approached by an ever-growing number of Lahaina fire victims. “A person who has someone who’s passed away or if there's an injury claim, they need to find the best representation possible to represent those interests,” says attorney Joe Wildman of Takitani, Agaran, Jorgensen, & Wildman. A criminal law practice or an estate planning practice, he asserts, would most likely not be in a position to provide the kind of expertise that could be offered through the combined multiple resources of large, well-funded law companies.
We believe clients will be best served through a combination of local Maui legal entities working in tandem with law firms that have deep experience in class action lawsuits on a national scale. Panish notes that there is also enormous benefit in working with local firms like Takitani, Agaran, Jorgensen, & Wildman, whose offices are right across the street from the courthouse in Wailuku. “You're going to need lawyers that have experience and you're going to need a full baseball team, working together to support everyone in this. It's going to be a long journey, but I think the more people, the more resources devoted to it, the better it's going to be for all the victims.”