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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Supreme Court sided Thursday with relatives of the 20 people killed in flash floods at the Albert Pike campground in 2010, agreeing with their interpretation of a state law the federal government is trying to use to strike down lawsuits over the deaths.
A federal judge had halted 11 separate suits against the federal government over the flooding as she asked the high court to interpret the state law. A lawyer for the families said Thursday's opinion will help make their case to continue with the lawsuits.
The federal government had argued that a state law bars lawsuits against landowners who don't charge a fee for recreational use. The law makes an exception if the landowner "maliciously" fails to warn about conditions or activities known to be dangerous.
In June 2010, the Little Missouri River rose more than 20 feet in less than four hours, trapping people in the Albert Pike campground and killing 20. Relatives of the victims have sued the U.S. Forest Service, which operates the campground.
The lawsuit says the government failed to evacuate the campers or to even post signs warning of flood danger, as the narrow gorge where the campground was located has historically been prone to flooding. Many homes in the adjacent area are built on pilings.
The court said in its opinion Thursday that malicious conduct under the state law includes reckless disregard of the consequences from which malice may be inferred.
"If we give the malicious-but-not-mere-negligent exception to immunity the broadest reading that is within the fair intendment of the language used, then we must conclude that 'malicious' conduct, under (state law) includes conduct in reckless disregard of the consequences from which malice may be inferred," Chief Justice Jim Hannah wrote in the court opinion.
An attorney for the lead plaintiffs said she was pleased with the court's interpretation, saying it helps their case to move forward with the suits. The families must still prove that the federal government's conduct was malicious under this definition.
The federal government asked U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey to dismiss the case, citing immunity under Arkansas Recreational Use Statute. The federal government had argued that malicious conduct under that law was limited to situations involving a desire to harm another.
"That argument is completely taken out of play," said Melody Piazza, who represents families of three of the people killed in the flooding. The lawsuits don't seek a specific dollar amount.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Fort Smith, which is representing the federal government in the case, declined to comment on the Supreme Court opinion.
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