KNOXVILLE — As the five-year anniversary of the Chimney Tops 2 fires draws near, a federal judge has suspended proceedings on the 11 complaints against the National Park Service over its handling of the fires.
Judge Ronnie Greer issued an order last week staying the case, temporarily suspending the proceedings while he considers the park service’s latest motions to dismiss.
Attorneys had been set to start taking depositions over the next few weeks, with a trial set for next July. Now it isn’t clear whether those will have to be rescheduled.
“Right now I think anybody’s guess is as good as mine on that issue,” said Gordon Ball, one of the attorneys representing dozens of local families who sued the NPS, accusing the park of failing to give adequate notice of the fire.
Attorneys representing the NPS did not respond to a request for comment on this story; they typically don’t comment outside of court on ongoing cases.
Greer is reviewing two new motions to dismiss the complaint — the latest attempts by NPS’ attorneys to get a judge to say that either federal court doesn’t have jurisdiction to hear the case or that the decisions made by park officials are protected from legal review.
That has essentially been the point of contention since the first lawsuit was filed. So far, the judge has ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
“I’m going to characterize these last two motions as what I would call Hail Mary motions,” Ball said.
The plaintiffs have filed their own legal arguments in opposition to the motions, and Greer heard oral arguments on the matter last month.
Both sides had continued preparing for the possible trial, and had been working with the court to schedule proceedings until Greer suspended proceedings last week.
It’s a frustrating moment for the families who are seeking justice after the fires.
Ball said his team feels good about the facts of the case, but at this point they’re still left arguing over whether the court should even hear the case.
Even when Greer makes a decision, he expects it to move on to an appellate court.
“It’s a long battle and some cases settle and this one is one of those cases that will not settle until this jurisdictional issue is decided by an appellate court,” he said.
The fires started near the top of the Chimney Tops trail on Nov. 23, 2016, and were spotted by NPS personnel that evening.
Five days later, hurricane-force winds in the mountains blew what had been a small fire into a conflagration that roared out of the park, taking 14 lives and damaging homes in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and other areas of Sevier County.
The plaintiffs have maintained that personnel at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were aware of the possibility of strong winds and that an ongoing drought created a threat from the fire, and they had an obligation to warn their neighbors.
Attorneys for the park say that decision is left to the discretion of personnel there, that they were meeting any obligations by issuing statements about the fire, and that federal statutes exempt personnel and departments from lawsuits over those decisions.
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