Katrina Lawsuit Against Army Corps of Engineers Will ProceedMar 23, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP
A U.S. District Court Judge has ruled that a group of Louisiana residents whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina can proceed with a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to the Associated Press, the lawsuit claims the Corps is responsible for the homes' destruction because it failed to maintain a levy along the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, allowing Katrina's storm surge to flood parts of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish through that waterway.
The Hurricane Katrina lawsuit is now scheduled for trial beginning April 20. According to the Associated Press, the case will be watched by thousands of other Hurricane Katrina victims who also blame the Army Corps of Engineers for the loss of their homes.
The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet serves as a shortcut for ships from the Mississippi River heading to the Gulf of Mexico. When it was built, it cut into the Louisiana swamps. Critics of the outlet claim it destroyed wetlands, marsh and swamp forests that had served as natural flood controls, and were effective at slowing surges from storms like Katrina.
The federal government has tried on three occasions to have the lawsuit, known as Robinson vs. United States, dismissed, the Associated Press said. This time, the Corps argued that federal law gives it immunity from lawsuits - a concept called sovereign immunity - and that it properly maintained the waterway.
But U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval dismissed that argument, writing that there were “substantial questions of fact with respect to the actions and inactions that followed the creation of the channel".
According to the Associated Press, Judge Duval had already dismissed a class-action lawsuit against the Army Corps over the breaching of New Orleans' 17th Street Canal during Katrina. The judge ruled that the corps was immune in that case under the Flood Control Act of 1928. That act grants immunity to the federal government when flood control projects fail.
But the lawsuit involving the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet does not focus on the channel's flood controls. Instead, Judge Duval said that a trial is required on the issue of whether the Corps failed to take the risk of flooding from the outlet seriously after it dug the channel, the Associated Press said. The Corps argued that it "relied on studies that the widening of the channel and loss of wetlands would not have an effect on the people and property in the area," Duval said. "The question is whether the reliance on these studies was negligent or not."
According to The New York Times, the government has said damages in the suit could reach $100 billion - making it the largest in U.S. history. If the plaintiffs are successful, it would open the door to more litigation, as more than 400,000 similar complaints have been filed against the Corps, the Times said.