Lawsuits Filed Over New Orleans Levee Breaks

Lawsuits seeking liability for the failure of the levees in New Orleans have already been filed. Lawyers are seeking class-action status. The potential payout may involve tens of thousands of households.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

New Orleans is rebuilding from its bouts with two hurricanes. One central question is: Who's responsible for the breaks in three levees that led to massive flooding? NPR's Greg Allen reports lawsuits are likely to be numerous and very expensive.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Daniel Becnel is a Louisiana lawyer who's been involved in most of the big class-action lawsuits of recent years: tobacco litigation, fen-phen, Vioxx. But he says the lawsuits arising from the failure of New Orleans levees and the flooding of an estimated 160,000 homes may dwarf those settlements.

Mr. DANIEL BECNEL (Attorney): I think this is going to be one of the biggest I've ever seen, and the reason why is most of these homes are worth a minimum of about $100,000. Many of these homes are worth two and $3 million.

ALLEN: And Becnel says that's just the property damage and doesn't account for the disruption to businesses and lives caused by the flooding. Becnel was seeking class-action status for a lawsuit he's filed over the failure of the levees on the 17th Street and the London Street canals. In both instances, Becnel says, he believes the damage was not caused by nature but by humans through negligence.

Mr. BECNEL: The hurricane had passed. There was no water in the streets. They were all being pumped out. And all of a sudden, the levees start collapsing and all of the water just backs into the city and fills it up like a cup of tea.

ALLEN: Becnel is just one of a group of lawyers already working on post-Katrina lawsuits. He says his firm has been contacted by thousands of people whose homes were flooded after the levees failed. In New Orleans, much of the attention is focused on flood wall sections along the 17th Street and London Street canals. The Army Corps of Engineers says it believes now the flood walls broke after the earthen levees they were anchored in gave way. That's something J. David Rogers has seen before. Until recently, Rogers was a forensic engineer who investigated flooding and levee failures in thousands of court cases. He now teaches engineering at the University of Missouri. Rogers says the levee breaks in New Orleans bear some similarity to the failure in 1986 of a levee on the Yuba River, south of Marysville, California.

Mr. J. DAVID ROGERS: That was a catastrophic levee break that then flooded an enormous area and those people, like the people in New Orleans, were not part of the National Flood Insurance Program. They didn't even know they had the potential to be flooded out because they lived inside of an area protected by levees.

ALLEN: That case was in court for more than 15 years, but when it was settled, the state of California had to pay some 3,000 residents more than $400 million. In that case, as in New Orleans, the levees were designed by the Army Corps of Engineers and then turned over to a local government entity. In New Orleans, it's the Orleans Parish Levee Board that owns and maintains the levee system. In cases he's been involved with, Rogers says it's typical that it's not just the levee authority that is sued but also insurance companies, contractors, state entities--in short, any group or individual with any possible connection to the levee failure. Because Louisiana's governor appoints members to the levee board, lawyers expect the state with its deep pockets to be at the table. As a federal agency, the Army Corps of Engineers is mostly immuned from lawsuits, but Rogers says that doesn't mean that they won't be named.

Mr. ROGERS: The Army Corps, you know, you bring them into the case 'cause you're going to mine them for information. You want to get all their documents and records. If you don't bring them in the lawsuit, you're going to have a heck of a time getting access to all those records and information. Why should they give it to you?

ALLEN: Lawyers say they believe tens of thousands of New Orleans residents could be represented in class-action flooding suits, and if those suits are successful, damages could run into the billions. Because of that, some who are filing lawsuits want Washington to create a victims' compensation fund similar to the one established by Congress after 9/11. Lawyer Mark Wasser was involved in lawsuits that followed the 1986 flooding in California. He says elected officials may be hesitant to create yet another victims fund, but without a fund, he says, battered New Orleans court system could break down under the strain of post-Katrina lawsuits.

Mr. MARK WASSER (Attorney): It could substantially interfere with the ability of those courts to handle just the normal flow of litigation that they process, and so it's a tough question and elected officials in both state and perhaps the federal level are going to have to debate that.

ALLEN: Because of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans courts have been scattered across the region, but the disruption hasn't stopped the lawsuits which are already showing up in courts across the Gulf. In Houston, federal Judge Eldon Fallon has begun meetings in the first potential post-Katrina class-action lawsuit, one involving the flooding and massive oil spill in St. Bernard Parish. Greg Allen, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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