A federal court recently denied the National Park Service’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought against it for loss of life and property due to the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that burned parts of Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 2016. The plaintiffs argued that the government was liable because it failed to warn the public of the danger posed by the fire. NPS argued that it was not required to warn the public but instead had to exercise its judgment as to whether a warning was appropriate. Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, the government cannot be sued if it is making a judgment call pursuant to its discretion. NPS asked the court to dismiss the case on that basis.
The court, however, rejected NPS’ assertions that its duty to warn was discretionary. Instead, the court found that the agency’s Fire Management Plan specifically required the agency to notify local residents “of all planned and unplanned fire management activities that have the potential to impact them.” It also required them to inform park neighbors of wildland fires. As a result, the court held that the government is not immune from liability. To prevail, the plaintiffs will now have to demonstrate that NPS engaged in negligent or wrongful acts for which any private party would be liable.