A Columbia law professor warned that a court ruling which held the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers liable for Katrina-related flooding in New Orleans could have lasting effects on environmental litigation.
Speaking at the DRI Toxic Tort and Environmental Law conference held Feb. 9 and 10 in New Orleans, Michael Gerrard said that the 2009 federal ruling could open the door to a series of lawsuits aimed at engineers, manufacturers and public entities whose structures fail because of natural disasters.
"The theory will be that there is mounting scientific literature predicting severe weather and that the people designing and constructing these structures should build them to withstand these weather events," he said.
In the ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. favored five bellwether plaintiffs who lost their homes in the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish because of the flooding. Duval said that the Corps failed "to take a myriad of actions to alleviate [the] deterioration" of the floodwalls protecting the city.
The plaintiffs were awarded damages between $100,000 and $317,000, but the ruling is currently under appeal. Gerrard said that, depending on how this case makes its way through higher courts, the Corps could be liable for much more damages.
"There are several thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of similarly situated plaintiffs," he said. "This could cost tens of billions of dollars."
Gerrard also said that this litigation could be a "foretaste of what may happen in the future" in regards to severe flooding events and accusations of poor design or maintenance.