Court Dismisses Numerous Plaintiffs’ From Great Smokey Mountain Fire Mass Tort Suits

A series of lawsuits filed against the National Park Service by individuals and insurance companies arising out of the devastating complex of wildland fires that tore through Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 2016, have been narrowed by a decision yesterday in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee.

Here is earlier coverage of the filing of the initial suit, brought by Michael Reed, who lost his wife and two daughters in the fire. That suit was followed by numerous others, which were consolidated into Reed’s original filing. The suits alleged the Park Service failed to warn area residents of the impending danger associated with the fires that killed 14 people, injured 190, damaged over 2,000 structures, burned over 16,000 acres, and caused the evacuation of 14,000 people.

Judge J. Ronnie Greer has dismissed the claims of the individual plaintiff’s ruling that they failed to comply with the procedural requirements of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). He refused to dismiss the claims brought by the insurance companies, concluding their initial tort claims, and subsequent complaints filed in court did not suffer from the same procedural deficiencies that led to the dismissal of the individual claims.

Quoting from the decision (internal quotations and citations removed to facilitate reading):

  • The FTCA prevents any action from being instituted against the United States unless the plaintiff first filed a claim with the United States.
  • Any plaintiff must first present the claim to the appropriate Federal agency.
  • The requirements are met if the claimant (1) gives the agency written notice of his or her claim sufficient to enable the agency to investigate and (2) places a value on his or her claims.
  • The notice requirement, along with the sum certain requirement, are collectively referred to as the presentment requirement.
  • As to the Basis of Claim, the Individual Plaintiffs wrote … the U.S. government through its employees, failed to follow mandatory regulations to monitor and extinguish a fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, thereby allowing it to spread beyond the park boundaries onto claimants’ private property, destroying their property.
  • The Individual Plaintiffs’ [claim forms] contain no information about a failure to warn or facts related to a failure-to-warn claim.
  • While the Individual Plaintiffs put the United States on notice that they were seeking damages for claims arising out of firefighting and monitoring, they didn’t mention any facts or allegations for the distinct claim regarding failing to warn.
  • The Individual Plaintiffs did not give any notice of their failure-to-warn claim.
  • Individual Plaintiffs’ failure-to-warn claim is a different claim from their claims related to their failure-to-monitor and failure-to-extinguish claims.
  • It is based on a different theory of negligence, involves a different set of operative facts.
  • Because the Individual Plaintiffs did not satisfy the notice requirement of the FTCA and the requirement is jurisdictional, this Court does not have subject matter jurisdiction of their failure-to-warn claims. Therefore, the United States Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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