A Sixth Circuit panel on Thursday revived Tennessee property owners' suit seeking to recover from the federal government $82 million in damages they suffered from the 2016 Chimney Tops 2 Fire, finding in a published opinion that the plaintiffs gave the appropriate agency notice of their claims that they weren't warned of the fire dangers.
The district court erred in finding that property owners didn't satisfy the Federal Torts Claims Act requirement that they provide notice of their claims that, through its employees, the federal government failed to properly warn neighbors of the potential impact the wildfire would have on their lives and property, the panel said Thursday.
The property owners met the not "particularly high bar" in presenting their failure-to-warn claims to the relevant government agency, in this case, the Department of Interior, through a form called the SF95, according to the opinion authored by U.S. Circuit Judge Helene N. White.
"In light of this 'minimal notice' requirement and the facts presented, the district court erred in finding that plaintiffs failed to satisfy the presentment requirement," the panel said.
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Ted Leopold of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, who also represents the plaintiffs, said they were "extremely happy" with the ruling.
"We now look forward to litigating these cases on the merits and providing a full measure of justice for the hundreds of our clients who lost their properties, their dreams and, in many instances, lost their lives, all as a result of the federal government's failure to properly and timely act during the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, fire," he said in an email statement.
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Residents began suing the federal government in 2017 after the 2016 fire spilled out of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, alleging National Park Service employees didn't follow the park's fire management plan, which required park visitors and local residents to be notified when any type of fire management activity could impact them.
The opinion said the fire began in the park on Nov. 23, 2016, across less than an acre. Over the next four days, the fire grew to about 40 acres and was still contained within the park. On Nov. 27, 2016, firefighters were released for the night, and the fire was not monitored overnight.
The National Weather Service issued a high-wind warning at about 4 a.m. Nov. 28, 2016, saying that wind gusts could reach up to 60 mph, according to the opinion. By 6 p.m., the fire had grown to more than 5,000 acres and was impacting nearby neighborhoods.
Fourteen people died, 191 people were injured, more than 2,500 structures were destroyed, more than 17,000 acres of land burned and more than $1 billion in damages was caused by the fire, which was fully extinguished in mid-December 2016, according to the opinion.
Plaintiffs filed administrative claims with the Department of Interior through the SF95 form. The agency didn't act on the claims, so plaintiffs sued.