September 11, 2020
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park cases, filed in 2018, allege that National Park Service failed to warn local officials and the area community about a fire that broke out Nov. 23, 2016, eventually charring more than 10,000 acres.
As wildfires ravage the West Coast, victims of a 2016 wildfire in Great Smoky Mountains National Park won a key court ruling in cases brought against the U.S. government.
The ruling, by U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer of the Eastern District of Tennessee, refused to dismiss a set of cases brought on behalf of individuals who died or suffered property damages due to The Chimney Tops 2 Fire, which, along with a series of other wildfires that broke out at the same time, killed 14 people and injured 190. Greer is the second judge to refuse dismissal to the U.S. Department of Justice, which is defending the park’s operator, the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Park Service, in the litigation.
Ted Leopold, a partner in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, who represents the owners of 400 properties and 11 families who lost loved ones due to the fire, said the case now moves to discovery, since “we have now prevailed twice on those issues, and we’re looking forward to moving aggressively on the litigation.”
The ruling—dated Sept. 8—comes as wildfires have scorched large swaths of California, Oregon and Washington, killing at least 15 people. All national parks in California, where wildfires have burned 3 million acres, have closed.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park cases, filed in 2018, allege that National Park Service failed to warn local officials and the area community about a fire that broke out Nov. 23, 2016, eventually charring more than 10,000 acres. They are pursuing claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).
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“We felt when the prior judge ruled, that was the end of it,” Leopold said. “But when Judge Greer took over the case, the government sort of felt like they could take another bite of the apple on the same issue. Judge Greer felt as it related to jurisdictional issues, that could be raised, and felt it was a new issue that wasn’t raised before.”
In his ruling, Greer came to a similar finding, concluding that park officials, while disseminating information through park public affairs and posting fire information on websites and social media, did not notify or inform park neighbors, park visitors and local residents of their actions, as required under the FMP.
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