NEW ORLEANS - A team of plaintiffs' attorneys has spent roughly $16 million to sue the Army Corps of Engineers over levee breaches that flooded most of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Joseph Bruno, one of those lawyers, estimates that they ultimately will recoup a mere $3.5 million of their investment.
There won't be any windfalls for their clients, either. A string of court rulings has insulated the federal government from liability for billions of dollars in flood damage that many residents and business owners have blamed on the corps' shoddy design, construction and maintenance of the region's system of levees and floodwalls.
The courts have been a dead end for many other plaintiffs seeking compensation for Katrina-related losses. Rulings have consistently affirmed the insurance industry's position that its homeowner policies don't cover damage from a hurricane's rising water, a blow for many Katrina victims in Louisiana and Mississippi whose homes were wrecked by Katrina's storm surge.
Only a handful of Katrina legal battles continue. A notable example is a jury trial scheduled to start this month for flood damage claims against Jefferson Parish and its disgraced former parish president, Aaron Broussard, over a decision to evacuate drainage pump operators just before the storm's landfall.
But most of the civil litigation spawned by the 2005 hurricane already has been resolved, usually to the plaintiffs' detriment.
Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. in New Orleans dismissed tens of thousands of levee-related claims against the federal government. Duval has presided over a batch of consolidated claims that has generated more than 21,000 docket entries over the years. And his work on the litigation is largely done.
Duval's recent order essentially was a formality. The fate of those cases was sealed more than a year ago, when a federal appeals court reversed itself and overturned Duval's landmark ruling that the federal government wasn't immune from lawsuits blaming flood damage on the corps' operation and maintenance of a New Orleans shipping channel. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.