Hurricane Katrina Breach Litigation

Hurricane Katrina Breach Litigation

Hurricane Katrina was one of the most destructive in the U.S. history. On August 27, 2005, the hurricane passed over the coast of Florida near Miami and turned toward the Gulf of Mexico. Many towns and cities on the southeastern coast of the United States were obliterated since they are located below the sea level. New Orleans bore the greatest part of destruction – 80% of the city was flooded and almost all flooded buildings collapsed. Because of Hurricane Katrina, a total of 1,300 people were killed. The most part of the victims (1.1 thousand) were the inhabitants of Louisiana and New Orleans, in particular. As of March 2006, 1,900 residents were registered as missing. Thousands of people were left homeless due to both the flood and the hurricane itself. The total damage from Hurricane Katrina amounted to over $278 billion (Thomas, 2007).

In 2007, about 250,000 people were seeking indemnification for Katrina-related damages. Numerous lawsuits followed against the U.S. government in order to force the authorities to pay for the damage (Thomas, 2007). The trials were initiated by numerous organizations, corporations, public officials, levee boards, insurance companies, and others.  The most outstanding and decisive lawsuit concerning Hurricane Katrina damages is a lawsuit against the U.S. government — In Re: Katrina Canal Breaches Consolidated Litigation, where several individuals started proceedings against the U.S. government, claiming it was the government to be held responsible for the flood. The claimants maintained that a massive destruction occurred because the levees, protecting the city from flooding, primarily the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), were designed inappropriately and thus could not hold increased volumes of water (Thomas, 2007). The case was referred to as the Robinson case with Norman Robinson being one of the plaintiffs. The lawsuit concerned the damage to the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East, and St. Bernard Parish. The Robinson case was considered first by local courts. However, the plaintiffs were not satisfied with the court decision and so the case reached the Supreme Court.

Initially, the case was the no-win venture, since in 1928, the U.S. government protected itself from the liability for any damage caused by a flood by enacting a Flood Control Act (FCA) (Richards, 2012). Thus, the case should not have been directed to the court in the first place and should have ended at the pre-trial investigation. However, the plaintiffs mentioned the mistakes made by the Corps of Engineers: (1) the design faults of MRGO led to the funnel effect; (2) the erosion of the swamplands around MRGO. The first factor led to the intensification of the storm’s impact. As the result, much of New Orleans was flooded. The funnel effect, in its turn, accelerated the magnitude and strength of the surge.

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The mentioned facts were enough for the plaintiffs to pass the case to a court and win it. However, the litigation was delayed. The U.S. Corps representatives and the Court did not pay attention to the facts corroborating the fault of the Corps. First, there existed an earlier case concerning massive destruction as a result of Hurricane Betsy in 1965. This was an identical case, except the fact that flood control structures had not been built yet. The plaintiffs won the case after establishing the facts that flood control levees were not existent and the FCA could not be applied there. Another issue overlooked by the court was that the erosion processes were not taken into account when building the MRGO. The point was that the extra water should have been pumped out immediately, since the city had been built under the sea level. Furthermore, as New Orleans is situated on the marshlands, the erosive processes of land are continually in motion (Richards, 2012). The court did not take into account this issue, which was definitely a mistake.

Research showed that the Corps knew about the consequence of not taking into account the erosive processes, which proved the position of plaintiffs according to Federal Tort Claims Act (FCTO). However, the judge turned the case into investigation for the floodwater origin. The MRGO was then claimed to a Navy vessel (Richards, 2012); thus, there was no connection between the FCA and the point of the lawsuit. As the result, the Court considered MRGO as a navigation vessel and the water of the flood was not actually the floodwater (the FCA concerns only the floodwater). However, such transition of the MRGO origins had already been examined in the Graci case (Richards, 2012). Thus, the plaintiffs succeeded and the FCTO proved its usefulness to such cases. The advocates then turned to allocating the damages made by the flood.

As it can be seen, the Robinson case itself is not a healthcare case. It draws on mistakes in building levees and coastal science. However, the FCTA is closely related to healthcare issues. In 1992 and 1995, under the Federally Supported Health Centers Assistance Act, the employees of health centers were treated as federal workers and qualified under the protection of FCTA (Health Resources and Services Administration, n.d.). This means that if a patient is not satisfied with the service management of a health center or when such service led to fatal consequences or injuries, he/she could file a claim against the U.S. government, not the center itself. In the investigated case, the claims were made against the U.S. Engineering Corps, who are qualified under FCTA as federal employees as well.

This means that the cases against health centers would be harder to win, since the cases against the government are rather complicated. The plaintiffs should be more accurate in bringing charges and should scrutinize the facts or circumstances of the case more carefully. In addition, the case against the Federal government may take more time than an ordinary one. On the other hand, FCTA provides protection for federal employees against inofficious charges (Health Resources and Services Administration, n.d.). Patients often are not concerned about the medical causes for the injury, as well as the responsibilities of a doctor in providing medical service. Frequently, the plaintiffs’ charges have been unreasonable since the doctors reached their load capacity.

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The Robinson case was a litmus test to find out how FCTA regulation could be put in practice. It showed a case against the government could be successful providing proper evidence base were furnished. It also showed that there were several implications connected to the trial. These were attempts by the court to protect the government first often by ignoring the facts which proved the government representatives’ guilt; redirecting responsibilities to other agencies, as it was made with MRGO as a Navy vessel; and general unwillingness to finish the case properly. FCTO provides solid protection for healthcare organizations and their employees. However, they should be ready that there is a possibility to win a trial against the U.S. government. Such cases are normally good precedents for the future, and they are important for the development of the legal system. If the Robinson case had had the other ending, the FCTA would have proved its usefulness for federal employees. However, there would appear arguments regarding the equity of the court system.

To conclude, the importance of such trials should not be underestimated. Test cases are giving the possibility of adding new claims against the agency, opening doors to greater liability, and incentivizing governmental responses more effectively. FCTA gives the protection for federal employees where there is a possibility to win the trial. Healthcare organizations should be ready to face legal action in case the employee is guilty and there is a way to prove it.

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