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Hurricane Katrina Legal Roundup

A by-no-means-exhaustive recap of recent Katrina-related legal activity

By Cheryl Smith, Fri., Aug. 24, 2007

Two years after possibly the worst natural disaster this country has ever faced, the extent of its litigation fallout is still open-ended. Hurricane Katrina hit land in New Orleans on Aug. 29, and, like the winds and rains it brought from the Gulf, its lawsuit spawn keep coming. Here's a by-no-means-exhaustive recap of recent Katrina-related legal activity:

The trial of the owners of St. Rita's nursing home in New Orleans, where 35 residents died in the aftermath of Katrina, began in St. Francisville, La., on Aug. 17. Prose­cutors claim Salvador and Mabel Mangano, "charged with 35 counts of negligent homicide and 24 counts of cruelty for the death and suffering," used poor judgment in opting not to evacuate residents from the home, while the defense says the government is at fault for failing "to warn the couple to evacuate the building," the Associated Press reports. For more, see www.jurist.law.pitt.edu/currentawareness/katrinadisaster.php.

At an Aug. 16 hearing in Austin, U.S. Dis­trict Judge Sam Sparks declined to grant a temporary restraining order in Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Inc., et al. v. FEMA to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stop preventing "certain lawyers from working with disaster victims at centers where FEMA provides information about disaster assistance programs," the Austin American-States­man reports. According to a TRLA press release, "The lawsuit alleges that FEMA violates First Amendment rights by restricting TRLA's access to disaster victims and violates victims' rights to legal representation." Sparks set an Aug. 27 trial date for the case. For more, see www.trla.org/press/index.php.

Also on Aug. 16, a federal judge in Louisiana indicated at a hearing that he might not allow a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to advance, telling the lead attorney of the plaintiffs "that he is 'climbing up a hill' because the courts must abide by Congress' wishes," the Associated Press reports. "The corps claims that it can't be sued for the collapse of a flood wall and levee. ... Projects that fall under the Flood Control Act passed by Congress in 1928 have legal immunity, and the corps says the canal was part of the hurricane protection system it built over 40 years to defend New Orleans from storms," the AP reports.

On Aug. 6, authorities with the Louisiana Attorney General's Office told a district judge in New Orleans that "the doctor and two nurses once accused of killing patients in a flooded hospital following Hurricane Katrina face no further criminal charges," reports the AP, after a grand jury declined to indict the three on "nine counts of second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder."

On Aug. 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit overturned a lower court's earlier decision when it ruled insurance companies Allstate Corp., Travelers Cos Inc., and State Farm "are not responsible for flood damages in New Orleans – even if 'negligence' caused flooding that inundated the city," the AP reports. "The issue will be argued again on Sept. 12 in the Louisiana State Court of Appeals and, ultimately, at the state Supreme Court," said James Gar­ner, an attorney representing Xavier Uni­ver­sity, one of the plaintiffs.

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