Landmark Katrina Ruling Overturned On Appeal

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on September 26, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Army Corps of Engineers is not liable for property damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, according to a ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Three years ago, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. ruled that the federal government is not immune from suits blaming post-Katrina damage on corps' operation and maintenance. The appeals court overturned that decision on Monday.

The same panel of judges had originally ruled in favor of plaintiffs but reversed their decision, reports MSNBC. That ruling changes everything for families who lost their property during Katrina.

In March the appeals court ruled that the government was liable for some of the damage caused by flooding during Katrina. The damage due to flooding from a government-built navigation canal was deemed to be fair game for lawsuits.

But the court reversed its decision based on a law that limits government liability.

Government organizations often have immunity for any personal injury or property damage under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Government agencies generally can't be liable for damage that arises from their official work.

Originally the court ruled that the Army Corp of Engineers wasn't immune because the purpose of the channel was navigation, not flood prevention. Since the damage caused didn't stem from the official function of the channel, it was not subject to immunity.

That rationale was overturned because of another immunity exception called the 'discretionary function exception.' It says the government cannot be sued for an action that it makes or fails to make if the function is discretionary.

In this case the action is failure to maintain the navigation channels which exacerbated flooding during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The court ruled that maintenance is a discretionary function since decisions on maintenance depend on economic and political policy, both of which are at the government's discretion. As a result, the government is immune from liability for the failure to maintain the channel.

Monday's decision is a blow to the five families who were awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars, reports CNN. Their attorney claims he will continue to press the case, presumably appealing to the Supreme Court.

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