US judge rules survivors can sue over deadly Tennessee fire

Posted at 6:18 AM, Jan 08, 2020

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Survivors of a historically deadly Tennessee wildfire that killed 14 people can sue the National Park Service for failing to warn them of the danger, a federal judge has ruled.

The fire began in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg over Thanksgiving week in 2016. Greg Salansky, the park’s fire management officer, decided to try to contain the fire rather than attack it directly despite forecasts of high winds and dry conditions, The Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

The blaze ultimately left more than a dozen people dead, damaged more than 2,500 homes and caused an estimated $2 billion in losses.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which is representing the Park Service, has argued that citizens don’t have the legal right to challenge how government workers chose to handle the fire, because those decisions are “discretionary.” But the survivors’ attorney, Gordon Ball, argued the Park Service’s own fire management plan required Salansky to notify local leaders and those living nearby about the blaze. He argues Salansky didn't do this, and instead announced the fires posed “no immediate threat" to the community.

Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips agreed with Ball, ruling the Park Service’s own plan made warning residents and leaders mandatory, not discretionary, the newspaper reported Tuesday. Victims can sue on the grounds that the Park Service is liable for failing to warn them, Phillips ruled. However, they can't sue based on the approach the Park Service took to fighting the blaze, he added.

The Justice Department can still appeal the lawsuits.