Katrina - Legal Claims
Public Policy vs. Private Compensation
A Plea for Emergency Action Similar to the 9/11 Tragedy


By: Guerry R. Thornton, Jr.
Atlanta, Georgia
Internet: www.netlaw.net
Copyright © - 2005


     ATLANTA, Sept. 8/PRNewswire - The following article was written by Guerry R. Thornton, Jr., a lawyer in Atlanta and admitted in state and federal courts. He has handled claims in the $2.5 billion Dalkon Shield Settlement and the $230 Dupont Plaza Hotel Disaster; he has authored articles in Trial Magazine and The National Law Journal. He can be reached at: 404 933 0298 or 404 467 1670, and through his website: www.netlaw.net

     The New Orleans tragedy may result in a litigation explosion related to victim compensation, insurance, property damage and commercial losses. Competing claims may also be filed by local agencies for reimbursement concerning infrastructure losses, rescue and environmental costs. At this stage, Katina is projected to exceed the losses sustained in any prior natural or manmade disaster, including the World Trade Center attacks.

     Beyond the strain to our legal system from the vast number claims, the relationships between our various governments will be put to the ultimate test: how will our governments accept their legal and moral duties to citizens most in need, those who lost loved ones and those left homeless. If other disasters serve as a guide, claims may exceed the liability exposure from any other prior case. Now, the U. S. government may be the main target under the Federal Tort Claims Act and other laws that govern dam or levee failure cases.

     Based on flood history in America, Katrina appears to have been first an "Act of God", a hurricane, followed by massive flooding due to failures in the levees; relief mistakes may also give rise to liability claims. Because the flooding was foreseen and predicted, the cause of the disaster could be viewed as manmade due to design, construction and maintenance errors in the levees. It has long been known that that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane could cause severe breaks in the levees. The predictability of the disaster was confirmed in reports issued years ago by the Army Corps and flood experts in Louisiana. Yet, the agencies with oversight did not improve the levees. "The Corps had been pushing for years for Category 5 protection", says Robert Flowers past head of the Corps, "but decisions were made to accept more risk."

     The record over the past decade is replete with warnings, studies, flood scenarios, escape and rescue problems, death profiles, and other dire projections. Senator John Breaux has stated that "the warnings were there for years"; the prior head of the Army Corps, James Witt, oversaw reports which predicted that a disaster could occur; the Times-Picayune newspaper did a special series in 2002 documenting defects in the levees and the catastrophic impact on New Orleans should a Cat 4 or 5 hurricane strike. The worst case scenario has been realized and we must deal with the consequences at all levels, ranging from the White House and Congress to our courts.

     Because the Bush Administration and Congress are setting up relief plans that may exceed $60 billion, the compensation rights of those most in need - flood victims in New Orleans who have lost loved ones and their homes - should be addressed. Although the most serious cases involve death and injury, billions in commercial losses and property damage may also be filed. It is essential that our courts be prepared to effectively handle the onslaught of claims. "Katrina victims need a broad array of compensation options similar to victims in the 9/11 disaster, including the right to file suit against parties at fault," says Thornton.

     The Bush Administration is providing help to Katrina victims in the form of rescue, food, shelter, medical and a temporary stipend of $2,000. This assistance is far from adequate as victims try to rebuild their lives. While tens of billions in government programs will help rejuvenate the Gulf Coast, Congress and the Bush Administration should expand their support by providing a two-pronged legal relief system for victims in New Orleans: 1) Congress should approve an open-ended "Katrina Compensation Plan" which will pay fair awards to death, injury and property damage claimants like the 9/11 Fund; alternatively, 2) Katrina victims should be allowed to forego federal awards and pursue viable claims against all parties at fault. Less than one month after 9/11, Congress passed the 9/11 Compensation Fund as part of its effort to protect the aviation industry (49 U.S.C. 40101) and to provide 9/11 victims with an alternative to costly litigation. The Fund paid over $7 billion to 9/11 claimants ($1.85 million on average per family). The Fund was a non-exclusive remedy - 9/11 victims could pursue litigation against the airlines.

     Due to the manmade levee failures and the foreseeability of the tragedy, the 9/11th Fund should serve as a compelling precedent for the establishment of a federal plan for Katrina victims. "Such a plan would be an unprecedented expression of compassion and justice on the part of Congress and the American people to the victims and their families devastated by the New Orleans floods," says Guerry R. Thornton, Jr., a lawyer in Atlanta.

     A Katrina Compensation program could resolve claims quickly and pay victims based on the value of their loss. Also, an award program could provide advance benefits for victims who need immediate help. For instance, the 9/11 Fund paid an initial $50,000 for families who lost loved ones, and $25,000 to those seriously injured, over and above the final awards. Beyond emergency help, such a program for New Orleans victims would not only help repair severely damaged lives, but serve our interest in fairness and liberty for all citizens.

     The enormous resources and financial power of the United States should come to the rescue of New Orleans residents. Funding for such a plan would be workable and fair in view of the vast profits now being earned in the oil and gas industry, in part due to the spike in oil prices from damage to Gulf Coast oil and gas operations. The plan could be easily funded via an added tax on gas and oil profits. A few cents per gallon on oil and gas produced in the United States or imported could raise billions of dollars to compensate Katrina victims.

     "In the aftermath of 9/11, we acted quickly to fairly compensate the richest of the rich; now, we should gather our resources to compensate the poorest of the poor. This is what American justice is all about; let some of the worst days in our history be followed by a total outreach to Katrina victims through a victim compensation plan," says Mr. Thornton, who will be lobbying the government for such a program.

     A Katrina Compensation Fund would not only provide rehabilitation for New Orleans residents, but it would improve the image of the United States; other nations are asking "Why can't the Great Super Power take care of its own while it tries to change other parts of the world"; such a program would answer our critics; it could have a positive impact on our economy, like a "Marshall Plan" for New Orleans. Such a plan would improve victim's lives with awards that would be used for housing, education, insurance, restoration and many other benefits. "The need is unprecedented; history supports such a fund; the resources are available; it is a matter of public integrity, political will and answering the call to do the just and right thing. A lack of will and resources contributed to the News Orleans tragedy. Let's not make the same mistake again," says Thornton.

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For More Information Contact:

Guerry R. Thornton, Jr.,
Attorney at Law

Internet site: www.netlaw.net