NEW ORLEANS (CN) – After weeks of trial and testimony from dozens of scientists, engineers, administrators and hurricane victims, the landmark federal trial accusing the Army Corps of Engineers of contributing to the catastrophic flooding of eastern New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina came to a close Thursday. “This case, obviously, is going to have an effect,” said U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr.
The courtroom was full Thursday afternoon after days of highly technical testimony. Judge Duval heard the case without a jury, because a jury cannot try a case against the federal government.
Duval’s ruling will determine the outcome of more than 120,000 other complaints, amounting to billions of dollars in damages. The plaintiffs seek damages of between $300,000 to $400,000 per person.
The plaintiffs claim that Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), a 76-mile channel dug by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s for shipping purposes, is responsible for wetland erosion and other environmental harms linked to the massive storm surge and resultant flooding of land just southeast of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
The government’s attorneys declined discussion of the case but in court documents and in testimony witnesses testifying on behalf of the federal government maintained that it was not the MRGO but the colossal size of Hurricane Katrina that caused the flooding and destruction.
“To be honest,” said one government witness after hours of circular cross examination Thursday, “I don’t think science is as important as politics in this dispute.”
Because the government is immune to allegations brought on by failure of the levee systems, Judge Duval’s March 2009 decision allowing a trial against the corps over the alleged negligent construction of the MRGO was unexpected.
No one knows for certain if the judge’s unusual ruling added to the general disorganization of the trial, although some trial attendees speculated that it did.
A common sentiment expressed by members of the courtroom was that the disorganization and inaccuracies characteristic of the defense’s conduct was analogous to the failure of the levees and the corps’ neglect in remediating obvious flaws to the MRGO over more than four decades.
Last Tuesday, the defense submitted 350 never-before-seen documents for the judge’s examination. Duval allowed the evidence into the trial, though whether or not he will take the information into further consideration, since really it should have been submitted for record weeks if not months before, is uncertain.
Judge Duval will take his time in making sense of the disparate scientific and engineering analyses brought to the case and will make a ruling in the coming weeks or months.
This trial, Duval said is “going to be seen (publically) as the truth” about the cause of Katrina’s devastation. “This case, obviously, is going to have an effect.”
The judge’s commitment to truly understanding the expert reports and data was met with praise from members of the court. “We could have gotten a judge who just zoned out and waited for his clerk to fill him in,” said one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “Duval is really immersing himself in this case; he is asking the same questions I am asking myself.”
The final statements of the trial were a few polite remarks and words of gratitude spoken between the plaintiffs’ attorney and Duval.
During a recess, plaintiff attorney Joseph Bruno indicated that a favorable outcome to the trial would be to have an outcome. The plaintiff attorneys have spent more than $4 million of their own money to fund the trial. If the government is unhappy with Duval’s ruling, it would be possible that the government’s appeal process could go on indefinitely, “until there isn’t a single practicing attorney left in the State of
In his final words at the trial’s conclusion, Bruno expressed gratitude to Duval for hearing the case.
Duval’s final statements praised the intelligence, organization and professional conduct of the parties and witnesses involved: “We have had some very smart people testify here over the month.”
Outside of court, Wesley Shrum, a professor of sociology at