A judge has ruled that negligence by US Army engineers led to massive flooding in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in a move which could lead to a massive Government payout to claimants.
District Judge Stanwood Duval said the Army Corps of Engineers was at fault for failing to maintain the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, resulting in the city’s defences being overwhelmed.
This led to widespread flooding in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward and St Bernard Parish, according to the ruling. The decision raises the chances of the federal government being held liable for billions of dollars in claims from homeowners and businesses in the affected regions.
Katrina struck south Louisiana on August 29 2005. More than 1,800 died in the resulting flooding that covered four-fifths of New Orleans.
Residents have long argued that the Army Corps were to blame for the devastation due to their failure to maintain the levee system that was supposed to protect the city.
That latest ruling supports their accusations, pointing towards negligence over the upkeep of the Mississippi River-Gulf outlet.
Judge Duval awarded seven plaintiffs 720,000 dollars (£432,500) over the Army’s oversight.
But the final bill for the government could be far higher. Estimates suggest that it could strengthen the claims of some 100,000 other individuals and businesses wanting recompense for their loss.
In his ruling, Judge Duval referred to the Army Corps’ “monumental negligence”.
Government lawyers argued that the levee system was simply overwhelmed by the power of the storm and that breaches of the defence could not be blamed solely on the shipping channel dug in the 1960s as a short cut between the gulf of Mexico and New Orleans.
But Judge Duval said in a 156-page ruling that he was “utterly convinced” that the corps failure to maintain the trench “doomed the channel to grow to two to three times its design width”.
That in turn “created a more forceful frontal wave attack on the levee” protecting St Bernard and Lower 9th Ward, it was ruled.
Judge Duval said: “The Corps had an opportunity to take a myriad of actions to alleviate the deterioration or rehabilitate the deterioration and failed to do so.”
He added: “Clearly the expression ’talk is cheap’ applies here.”
The plaintiffs welcomed the ruling.
Lawyer Pierce O’Donnell, who represented the complainants, said it represented the “first time ever the Army Corps has been held liable for damages for a major catastrophe that it caused.”
They are now calling on Washington to set up a compensation fund to speed up payments to tens of thousands of affected residents in New Orleans.
A spokesman for the US justice Department said the government would review the judge’s ruling before making any decision on how to proceed.