[JURIST] A judge in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana [official website] on Wednesday found [text, PDF] the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) [official website] negligent in its operation and maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO) [USACE backgrounder]. Damages nearing $720,000 were awarded to five plaintiffs [case materials], who successfully demonstrated that known defects in the MRGO and the USACE's subsequent failure to take action contributed significantly to the devastation caused in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish by Hurricane Katrina [JURIST news archive] in 2005. In his ruling, Judge Stanwood Duval wrote:
It is the Court's opinion that the negligence of the Corps, in this instance by failing to maintain the MRGO properly, was not policy, but insouciance, myopia and shortsightedness. … The Corps had an opportunity to take a myriad of actions to alleviate this deterioration or rehabilitate this deterioration and failed to do so. Clearly the expression "talk is cheap" applies here.
Duval dismissed the claims of two additional plaintiffs, ruling that the USACE is not liable for flooding in the eastern part of the city. The decision is expected to ease the burden [AP report] for more than 100,000 victims pursuing similar claims in the area.
The USACE had sought dismissal of the suit on several occasions. In March, Duval found [JURIST report] that material questions of fact existed as to a potential violation of the USACE's mandate that, if proven, would preclude it from protection under the discretionary function exception of the Federal Tort Claims Act. Duval previously allowed the lawsuit to proceed in May 2008, when he ruled [JURIST report] that the outlet was a shipping channel and not a flood control outlet in connection with which the USACE would have been properly immune in tort, and rejected the USACE's argument that the MRGO was nonetheless part of a larger flood control system in the New Orleans area. Duval made a similar ruling [JURIST report] in February 2007 in the context of an earlier motion to dismiss. Three months before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, an expert at the LSU Hurricane Center [official website] predicted that the MRGO could amplify storm surges by 20-40 percent. After Katrina, the center determined through computer modeling that the presence of the MRGO also increased the speed of the surge, causing an even greater detrimental effect [Washington Post report].