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The MRGO Decision and its Impact on Affected New Orleanians

As many people know, a federal court in New Orleans has found that the Army Corps of Engineers, and their maintenance of the MR-GO shipping canal, are partly to blame for the damage caused to certain areas in and near New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. This ruling will have a major impact on the legal claims of untold numbers of New Orleans metro area residents.

The federal court, presided over by Judge Stanwood Duval, ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers’ maintenance of the MR-GO canal was responsible for the flooding that occurred after Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. The court wrote, “The Corps’ lassitude and failure to fulfill its duties resulted in a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions.” If this ruling stands, thousands of New Orleans residents can rely on it in their claims against the government for damages stemming from Hurricane Katrina. These plaintiffs will not have to argue that the Corps was negligent—if Judge Duval’s ruling stands, courts will have to take that fact for granted in the future. Therefore, future plaintiffs may only have to prove that they live in the affected areas and that they suffered flood damage after Hurricane Katrina in order to collect from the government.

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There is an important limitation on Judge Duval’s ruling. The court held that the negligent maintenance of MR-GO only caused damages to the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. The court specifically denied claims brought by residents living in New Orleans East at the time of Katrina. This means that if you live outside of the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, this decision will not help you in your claims against the government for Hurricane Katrina damages. Plaintiffs outside of the named areas cannot rely on this decision to prove that the government was negligent. Furthermore, New Orleans East residents may be barred from alleging MR-GO-related claims against the government if Judge Duval’s decision stands.

It is also crucial to remember that this decision will be subject to the appeals process. The decision cannot be used by future plaintiffs until the appeals process is completed. Army Corps spokesman Ken Holder has made it clear that the Corps plans to appeal 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," Mr. Holder has said. The first step of the appeals process occurs at the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals here in New Orleans. From there, the parties can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The appeals process is lengthy, and will likely take years to complete. Therefore, the impact of Judge Duval’s decision will not be felt until sometime in the future.

Judge Duval’s decision represents a major turning point in the cases of hundreds of thousands of New Orleans area residents against the federal government for damages suffered after Hurricane Katrina, and everyone in the area would be well advised to keep a close eye on these proceedings as they unfold.

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Image: "Bywater House, New Orleans," originally uploaded to Flickr by chadly