High court declines to hear landmark Katrina case

Posted: June 24, 2013 at 3:56 p.m.

NEW ORLEANS — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined on Monday to review the dismissal of a landmark ruling that the Army Corps of Engineers was liable for billions of dollars in Hurricane Katrina flood damage that property owners blame on the corps' maintenance of a New Orleans shipping channel.

The Supreme Court didn't offer any reasons for its decision. Justice Elena Kagan didn't take part in considering or deciding the petitions for the court to hear the case.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed itself last year and tossed out a 2009 ruling by U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. The judge had rejected the federal government's argument that it is entitled to immunity from lawsuits blaming Katrina's flood damage on the corps' operation and maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet navigation channel.

The 5th Circuit, however, said the corps is insulated from liability by a provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act.

Plaintiffs' attorneys had argued that the corps' delay in armoring the channel was the result of erroneous scientific judgments, not public-policy considerations that would make it immune to the homeowners' claims. But the 5th Circuit panel disagreed, saying there was ample evidence that decisions leading to the corps' delay in shoring up the channel had a "public policy character."

Before the 5th Circuit threw out his ruling, Duval had awarded a total of nearly $720,000 in damages to five plaintiffs who sued the corps over the shipping channel claims. Duval ruled that the corps' shoddy oversight of the channel southeast of New Orleans caused much of the flooding of St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward, two of the hardest-hit areas after Katrina.

The shipping channel, which extends for 60 miles southeast from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, partially opened in 1963 and was closed about three years after Katrina struck in August 2005. Over the decades, the corps' dredging of the channel resulted in the loss of thousands of acres of wetlands that helped protect greater New Orleans from hurricane flood waters.

Plaintiffs' experts had testified that the channel became a "hurricane highway" funneling storm surge into New Orleans. Without the channel, they said, the flooding would have been minimal.