August 17, 2023
- Appeals court says victims gave adequate notice of allegations
- 2016 fire killed 14, damaged hundreds of buildings
A U.S. appeals court on Thursday revived lawsuits against the federal government by victims of the 2016 Great Smoky Mountains wildfires, which killed 14 people and caused over $1 billion in damage.
A three-judge panel of Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a lower-court judge’s dismissal of lawsuits alleging that park officials failed to warn the public of the pending danger of the fire after spotting it.
U.S. Circuit Judge Helene White, writing for the panel, said the hundreds of Tennessee residents who were injured, lost loved ones or had their property damaged had given the U.S. Interior Department adequate notice of their allegations to proceed, despite the district court judge’s determination otherwise.
White said the victims “need not articulate the precise cause of action” when initially notifying the government of damages claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act. That law requires people seeking damages from the federal government to submit administrative claims before filing formal legal complaints.
The U.S. Interior Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Theodore Leopold, a lawyer with the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll who represents the victims, said in a statement that they “now look forward to litigating these cases on the merits.”
The 2016 wildfires burned approximately 17,000 acres in eastern Tennessee and caused extensive damage to hundreds of buildings in and around the city of Gatlinburg.
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For the victims: Diana Martin and Theodore Leopold of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll; and Gordon Ball