COOKEVILLE, TN (WSMV) – The death of two-year-old Stephen Pierce has evolved from a tragedy to a legal challenge.
The boy drowned on June 10, 2019, at Cummins Falls State Park during a flash flood. Now suing the state, the attorney for the boy’s family is arguing that a long-held statute that protects property owners from lawsuits is trumped by several instances of gross negligence on the part of the state.
“This case will have far-reaching consequences,” said Christopher Smith, attorney for the Pierce family, during a February 4 hearing before the state appellate court.
The lawsuit references several findings from News4 Investigations that revealed what led up to the boy’s death.
Our reporting revealed the state department of environment and conversation knew that a flood warning system was not in place and still allowed the park to be open the day of Pierce’s drowning, despite heavy rain in the forecast.
Plans for a flood warning system to alert people of rising waters at a popular state park was stuck in bureaucratic limbo and ultimately stalled, all while lawmakers thought it was already in place at Cummins Falls State Park, internal emails obtained by News4 Investigates show.
The family also claimed that there was a park policy that floatation devices were to be left at the base of the falls, which is why Pierce was not wearing a floatee when his father attempted to carry him over floodwaters.
The family’s attorney also claimed that park rangers directed the family to head to the trail, which is why they had to try to cross the floodwaters to try and get to the trail.
Photographs show boy was wearing life jacket before he drowned at state park
Smith argued before the court that those were among the reasons that the state was negligent in the boy’s death.
“Failing to implement the warning system, failing to provide life jackets in a reasonable manner, opening the park that day despite the knowledge that the rain was coming,” Smith said.
But Heather Ross, senior assistant attorney general, said the state claims commission was correct in dismissing the lawsuit. The state recreational use statute means any property owner is not liable if someone comes onto their property for recreational purposes.
“The landowner — the state — is not liable for the injuries caused by a force of nature,” Ross said. “The recreational use statute takes away the duty for a landowner, to have to make their premises safe for people to enter for recreational purposes.”
But Smith argued that there is a clause in the recreational use statute for gross negligence, which he said was abundant in this case.
“If the landlord passively allows people to enter the land, that’s one thing. But when the landlord acts in negligence on the property, that’s another reason this doesn’t fall under the recreational use statute,” Smith said.
The appellate court must now decide whether to send it back to the claims commission.
The family is seeking $900,000 in compensation from the state for the boy’s death.