In a groundbreaking decision, a federal judge ruled late Wednesday that the Army Corps of Engineers' mismanagement of maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet was directly responsible for flood damage of homes in St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. could result in the federal government paying $700,000 in damages to three people and a business in those areas, but also sets the stage for judgments against the govenment for damages by as many as 100,000 other residents, businesses and local governments in those areas who filed claims with the corps after Katrina.
If successful, the damage claims could total billions of dollars.
Duval ruled, however, that WDSU-TV anchor Norman Robinson and his wife were not entitled to damages because the corps' dredging of the MR-GO did not affect the levee system that protects eastern New Orleans from hurricane storm surge. That probably means eastern New Orleans residents also would not be able to collect on claims they've filed against the corps, said attorneys representing plaintiffs in the case.
"The people of this city have been vindicated," said attorney Joseph Bruno, a leader of the large team of lawyers who represented the plaintiffs. "They didn't do anything wrong and it's time they be compensated."
"Judge Duval exposed 40 years of the Army Corps of Engineers' gross malfeasance with regard to the operation and maintenance of the MR-GO," said Pierce O'Donnell, a Los Angeles-based attorney and co-leader of the plaintiff's legal team. "His decision is an extreme condemnationof the lack of concern for the safety of New Orleans and St. Bernard residents."
A Justice Department spokesman was not immediately available late Wednesday to respond to the ruling, but the government is expected to appeal the decision to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.
The corps has estimated that it received more than 490,000 claims forms in the aftermath of Katrina and Hurricane Rita in 2005, but those forms include many from areas not covered by this decision.
"Until such time as the litigation is completed, including the appellate process up to and through the U.S Supreme Court, no activity is expected to be taken on any of these claims," corps spokesman Ken Holder said.