KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Lawsuits filed by victims of the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfires were severed and dismissed Thursday, but representatives say they aren’t done fighting for justice.
A memorandum opinion and order issued Feb. 28 dismisses the lawsuits filed by individual plaintiffs but allows lawsuits filed by insurance companies to continue. One of those dismissed was filed by Michael B. Reed, whose wife and daughters died in the wildfires.
“We respectfully believe the judge is totally wrong and we will appeal the case immediately,” said Gordon Ball, a Knoxville attorney representing Reed.
Also dismissed were lawsuits filed by Brittany N. Hyre Anculle, Brittany Adkins, James Carl Vance, Jackie Sue Barnes and Paul Abbott.
Lawsuits filed by American Reliable Insurance Company, State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, United Services Automobile Association, Allstate Fire and Casualty Insurance Company, and Auto-Owners Insurance Company were allowed to continue and will be consolidated, according to the opinion.
Here’s why. After the fires, numerous people and several insurance companies filed administrative claims with the U.S. for compensation for damages arising from the fire. By law, the cases had to start as administrative complaints.
The insurance companies claimed the National Park Service failed to provide “timely and accurate notice and warning” about the status of the Chimney Top 2 fire to local government and fire departments, residents and visitors. This argument was not in the fire victims’ original complaint.
Later these administrative complaints became individual lawsuits, which were then consolidated to create one big lawsuit containing all the arguments.
Why were the cases dismissed?
The federal attorneys didn’t have subject matter jurisdiction over the lawsuits filed by individuals and that the individual plaintiffs made a mistake by not including that ‘failure to warn’ provision in their original complaints.
Judge Ronnie Greer decided the court did have jurisdiction, but he agreed with the federal attorneys that the individual plaintiffs should have included the failure-to-warn component from the start. So Greer granted the motion to dismiss individual cases but allowed the insurance plaintiff’s cases to move ahead.
Greer’s dismissal is “without prejudice,” meaning in theory the victims can try again – and Ball says he “absolutely” intends to appeal.
Fourteen people died in the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfires.