Cohen Milstein’s Theodore J. Leopold is representing plaintiffs in a wrongful death and property damage mass action against the United States Department of Interior and National Park Service (NPS) for the negligence of its employees to perform their duties during The Chimney Tops 2 Fire in Tennessee, which originated in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and ultimately damaged or destroyed 2,500 homes, buildings and other structures, and killed more than a dozen people.
On September 8, 2020, The Honorable J. Ronnie Greer of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee denied in part Defendant’s motion to dismiss, ruling that the National Park Service fell short of its mandatory duty to warn Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitors and residents in nearby communities in the days and hours leading up to the fatal fires.
The district court later dismissed Plaintiffs’ claims, however, holding they failed to provide sufficient notice to the federal government that they suffered damages as a result of the government’s failure to provide adequate warnings regarding the fire.
On August 17, 2023, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated the district court’s order of dismissal and remanded the case. The appellate court held that Plaintiffs had done all that was legally required when they gave the government notice prior to filing their lawsuits that “sufficiently enabled the Department of the Interior to investigate Plaintiffs’ claims of injuries suffered as a result of the failure to warn of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire.” This ruling sends the Plaintiffs’ cases back to the trial court where they will continue litigating their failure to warn claims against the federal government.
On November 23, 2016, Fire Management Officer, Greg Salansky, for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park discovered a fire that was reported to less than a single acre in size near the Peak of Chimney Tops, about 5.5 miles from Gatlinburg, TN. While Salansky and other Park officials believed the fire would be controlled inside the Park, the 80 years of built-up ground fuels, months of severe drought conditions and a National Weather Service forecast of high-winds foretold a substantial change in The Chimney Tops 2 Fire’s behavior.
Plaintiffs claim that the conditions, especially the high-wind forecast, should have served as “a call-to-action” for Park officials. But Salansky, who had taken complete and unfettered command-control of The Chimney Tops 2 Fire, issued a “prescribed” burn, letting it burn inside a poorly designed and negligently implemented 410-acre “containment box.”
On November 28, 2016, The Chimney Tops 2 Fire grew in size and strength, breached the Park’s boundaries, and near-hurricane force winds carried it into Gatlinburg. In a matter of hours, the fire had swollen from 70 acres to 17,000 acres, damaging and destroying more than 2,500 homes, buildings and other structures, along with their contents, and ultimately resulting in more than a dozen deaths.
Plaintiffs further allege that the wrongful deaths, personal injuries and property damage were the direct, natural, and probable result of the negligent acts and/or omissions of the NPS employees who acted in direct violation of established NPS fire-management policies, negligent failure to prioritize the safety of citizens and their properties, and negligent failure to notify and/or warn Park neighbors, local residents, and visitors, including the Plaintiffs and decedents, of the imminent, dangerous, and deadly threats posed by The Chimney Tops 2 Fire.
Plaintiffs bring the case under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
The case name is: Reed, et al. v U.S.A, Case No. 3:18-cv-00201-JRG-CRW (E.D. Tenn.)