Alleged Damages in Hurricane Katrina from Dredging Operations Not Forseeable

A court of appeals has affirmed the dismissal of multiple claims alleging that negligent dredging operations before Hurricane Katrina led to the failure of levee systems in Louisiana.  See In Re: In the Matter of the Complaint of Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. LLC, No. 08-30738 (5th Cir. Oct. 14, 2010). Claimants were Hurricane Katrina flood victims who filed claims alleging negligence on the part of operators of dredging vessels along the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Plaintiffs argued that they suffered damages from the flooding of Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes when several levee systems failed as a result of the erosion of protective wetlands allegedly caused by the defendants’ negligent dredging operations.

The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet  (“MRGO”) is a 76-mile navigational channel that connects the Gulf of Mexico with the Industrial Canal in New Orleans, bisecting the marshy wetlands of St. Bernard Parish and Chandeleur Sound. It was built between 1958 and 1965 by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.  Beginning in 1993, the Corps of Engineers contracted with numerous private dredging companies, including the defendants, to assist the Corps of Engineers in maintenance dredging along the MRGO. From 1999 to 2004, the Corps of Engineers awarded more than 150
contracts to private dredging companies to dredge the length of the MRGO channel.

Plaintiffs, who numbered in the tens of thousands, were individuals, businesses, and other entities who owned property that was damaged due to flooding after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. (BTW, for readers, there is a fascinating new exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, DC, on the media coverage of Katrina.)  Plaintiffs contend that the defendants'  maintenance dredging operations caused severe damage to the Louisiana wetlands, which had been providing a natural barrier against tidal surge from storms and hurricanes. This damage to the wetlands allegedly caused an amplification of the storm surge in the New Orleans region
during Hurricane Katrina, which increased the pressure on the levees and flood walls along the MRGO, leading eventually, they alleged, to levee breaches and the subsequent flooding of St. Bernard Parish and Orleans Parish.

These allegations were different from some earlier Katrina claims, adding that their injuries resulted from the erosion to the wetlands caused by the negligent dredging, performed in breach of the standards set out in their Corps of Engineers contracts and various rules and regulations
alleged to apply to their operations, to try to defeat the dredgers’ government contractor immunity defenses, as well as the dredgers’ entitlement to exoneration from or limitation of liability under the Limitation of Liability Act.

Defendants moved to dismiss.  The district court dismissed the claims, and plaintiffs appealed. The 5th Circuit noted that to avoid dismissal, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter,
accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.  Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 570 (2007)). To be plausible, the complaint’s factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. In deciding whether the complaint states a valid claim for relief, we accept all well-pleaded facts as true and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.

Defendants argued that they could not have foreseen that discrete acts of negligent dredging could have resulted in the absolutely devastating and cataclysmic damages that occurred to St.
Bernard and Orleans Parishes.  Plaintiffs asserted that it is well known, as a matter of general knowledge, that the wetlands provide storm surge mitigation; that the levees protecting cities and towns in the coastal areas were designed with the assumption that the buffering action provided by the wetlands would remain intact; and that dredging activities cause damage to the wetlands.

Duty and forseeability were the key concepts here, and maritime law on this issue mirrored general negligence law.  Determination of the tortfeasor’s duty is a question of law.  A duty may be owed only with respect to the interest that is forseeably jeopardized by the negligent conduct. Thus, if the injuries suffered allegedly as a result of the negligent dredging were not foreseeable, the defendants owed no duty; to show a duty, plaintiffs had to show that each dredger reasonably should have foreseen that the sequence of events leading to their damages—the amplification of the storm surge during Hurricane Katrina, the failure of the levee systems, and the subsequent flooding of Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes—would be a probable result of its negligent acts and the marginal erosion to the wetlands caused thereby.

The 5th Circuit agreed with the trial court that the defendants in this case had no knowledge of an immediate and pending natural disaster that would affect how they conducted their dredging operations. Furthermore, it cannot be said that any dredger could have foreseen that performing its dredging activities negligently—as opposed to in conformity with the Corps of Engineers’ specifications— would probably result in the series of events culminating in the catastrophic damages that occurred during Hurricane Katrina. No reasonable dredger could have anticipated that its negligence would make the difference between the levee systems holding or failing in the event of a hurricane. The damages alleged here were beyond the pale of general harm which reasonably might have been anticipated by negligent dredgers.

The court cautioned that that was not to say that it could never be foreseen that dredging could create conditions that would result in flooding after a hurricane. Rather, it was not foreseeable that the marginal erosion caused by any act of negligence by a defendant here would substantially affect the impact of the hurricane such that the failure of the levee systems and subsequent flooding would be the probable result. The causal sequence alleged in the present case was just far too attenuated.

 

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