Judge Ponders Army Corps Liability in Katrina Catastrophe~

Testimony has ended in a landmark lawsuit by six New Orleans flood victims against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, charging the Corps with negligence in maintaining the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO, pronounced “mister go”) shipping channel. According to the suit, the Corp's construction and management of the channel increased the hazard associated with the storm surge, and led to the disastrous flooding that drowned much of the city during 2005's Hurricane Katrina. Federal lawsuits against the U.S. Government are decided by judges, not by juries. If District Court Judge Stanwood Duval finds for the plaintiffs, the decision could open the floodgates for billions of dollars in federal liability for the destruction of New Orleans property after the storm. The New Orleans Times-Picayune covers the story (" MR-GO flooding suit in judge's hands," by Mark Schleifstein), as does the Christian Science Monitor (" Katrina trial: New Orleans' truth commission," by Patrik Jonsson). Also, New Orleans TV station WDSU's Heath Allen interviewed plaintiff's attorneys at the start of the trial. Judge Stanwood previously threw out a similar class action suit against the Corps, based on Federal law that grants the agency immunity from lawsuit for levee failure. But in the MR-GO suit, Robinson v. United States, Stanwood ruled that the immunity does not extend to shipping channels like the gulf outlet. Plaintiffs charge that the outlet channel is the main reason that New Orleans flooded: they say the outlet funneled the storm surge into the city, and that the Corps knew for years of this risk. They also say the levees lining the channel were allowed to deteriorate to the point of grave danger — and that the Corps knew this as well. The government contests both these points. After a month of testimony from experts on both sides, the decision now rests in the hands of Judge Stanwood. The case has also spun off another mini-controversy: the case of LSU geology professor Ivor Van Heerden, a long-time critic of the Corps who testified for plaintiffs in the trial. LSU fired the professor in April, citing a conflict of interest and violation of University policy. A New York Times news blog, The Lede, covers that story (" Louisiana State Fires Hurricane Expert Who Warned of Katrina Flooding," by John Schwartz). For more information, the complaint in the Robinson v. United States lawsuit is available online, As is plaintiff's attorney Pierce O'Donnell's blog.