Nov 19, 2009 3:52 PM by Letitia Walker
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The federal government could be vulnerable to
billions of dollars in claims after a judge ruled that the Army
Corps of Engineers' failure to properly maintain a navigation
channel led to massive flooding in Hurricane Katrina.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval on Wednesday awarded seven
plaintiffs $720,000, but the government could eventually be forced
to pay much more. The ruling should give more than 100,000 other
individuals, businesses and government entities a better shot at
Duval sided with six residents and one business who argued the
Army Corps' shoddy oversight of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet
led to the flooding of New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward and neighboring
St. Bernard Parish. He said, however, the corps couldn't be held
liable for the flooding of eastern New Orleans, where two of the
The ruling is also emotionally resonant for south Louisiana.
Many in New Orleans have argued that the flooding in the aftermath
of Katrina, which struck the region Aug. 29, 2005, was a manmade
disaster caused by the Army Corps' failure to maintain the levee
system protecting the city.
"Total devastation could possibly have been avoided if
something had been done," said Tanya Smith, one of the plaintiffs.
"A lot of this stuff was preventable and they turned a deaf ear to
The 36-year-old registered nurse anesthetist lived in Chalmette
close to the channel when Katrina hit. She was awarded $317,000 in
property damages, the most of any of the plaintiffs.
Duval referred to the corps' approach to maintaining the channel
as "monumental negligence."
Joe Bruno, one of the lead lawyers for the plaintiffs, said the
ruling underscored the Army Corps' long history of not properly
protecting the New Orleans region.
"It's high time we look at the way these guys do business and
do a full re-evaluation of the way it does business," Bruno said.
He said he expected the government to appeal.
The corps referred calls seeking comment to the Justice
Department. Spokesman Charles Miller said the government would
review the judge's ruling before making any decision on how to
During trial testimony, government lawyers and experts argued
the levee system was overwhelmed by the massive storm, and levee
breaches couldn't solely be blamed on the shipping channel dug in
the 1960s as a short-cut between the Gulf of Mexico and New
The corps had also unsuccessfully argued that it is immune from
liability because the channel is part of New Orleans' flood control
In his 156-page ruling, Duval said he was "utterly convinced"
that the corps' failure to shore up the channel "doomed the
channel to grow to two to three times its design width" and that
"created a more forceful frontal wave attack on the levee" that
protected St. Bernard and the Lower 9th Ward.
"The Corps had an opportunity to take a myriad of actions to
alleviate this deterioration or rehabilitate this deterioration and
failed to do so," Duval said. "Clearly the expression 'talk is
cheap' applies here."
Ahead of Duval's ruling, experts had said it would likely have
consequences for the way the Army Corps does business nationwide.
Pierce O'Donnell, another lead plaintiffs lawyer, said the
ruling was the "first time ever the Army Corps has been held
liable for damages for a major catastrophe that it caused."
The plaintiffs lawyers would like Congress to set up a
compensation fund to speed up payments to the thousands of others
whose claims must still be heard in court.
At a one-month trial in May, experts clashed over the causes of
flooding and the channel's contribution to it.
Government experts argued the levees and floodwalls would have
failed regardless of whether the channel had been dug.
By contrast, the plaintiffs' team of experts said the outlet
became a "hurricane highway" that funneled storm surge into New
Orleans. They said that without the channel, the flooding would
have been minimal.
The lawsuit was the first major case against the federal
government over Katrina flooding to go to trial. A decision rested
with Duval because a jury cannot try a case against the federal