A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the Army Corps of Engineers' failure to properly maintain a navigation channel led to Hurricane Katrina's massive flooding of the Gulf Coast in 2005.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval sided with five residents and one business who argued the Army Corps' shoddy oversight of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet led to the flooding of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward and neighboring St. Bernard Parish. He said, however, the corps couldn't be held liable for the flooding of eastern New Orleans, where one of the plaintiffs lived.
Duval awarded the plaintiffs $720,000, or about $170,000 each, but the decision could eventually make the government vulnerable to a much larger payout. The ruling should give more than 100,000 other individuals, businesses and government entities a better shot at claiming billions of dollars in damages.
Joe Bruno, one of the lead plaintiffs lawyer, said the ruling underscored the Army Corps' long history of failure to properly protect the New Orleans region.
"It's high time we look at the way these guys do business and do a full re-evaluation of the way it does business," Bruno said.
CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen said that the ruling is unlikely to stand on appeal, especially if it makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court, who would be reluctant to expose the Army to massive liability.
"The damages in this case are not much, but if the principle is followed by other judges in the area, then it could mean a huge expense to the government," Cohen said.
The corps referred calls seeking comment to the Justice Department. The corps had argued that it is immune from liability because the channel is part of New Orleans' flood control system, but the judge allowed the case to go forward.
Many in New Orleans have argued that Katrina, which struck the region Aug. 29, 2005, was a manmade disaster caused by the Army Corps' failure to maintain the levee system protecting the city.
The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet is a shipping channel dug in the 1960s as a short-cut between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans.