Lawyers drawn to storm cases

Class action suits filed in Gulf Coast


New Orleans -- As the last puddles dried out last week from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, businesses and governments in the region braced for a storm surge of litigation.

Big-name attorneys in the Gulf Coast and local lawyers have filed class action lawsuits against the oil and gas industry, insurance companies and public officials. More suits are in the works. The prospect of big settlements -- or at least work -- has attracted area lawyers who find that they otherwise have little to do.

New Orleans criminal defense attorney Joseph Larre's 300 clients were evacuated and now sit in lockups across the South, some as far away as Jacksonville, Fla. Many of his case records were destroyed by floodwater, and the city's criminal courts have not reopened. So Larre, 47, drove around the city last week in his champagne-colored Ford Explorer and nailed signs to telephone poles announcing, in big red letters, "KATRINA CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT."

By Friday, he had received 300 phone calls. At least two other lawyers, he said, have put up similar signs.

Larre said he hasn't decided whom to sue for what. But he says he has heard from homeowners who fear that insurance companies will scrimp on settlements, as well as irate residents looking to haul New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and even the Red Cross into court.

As he considered potential defendants, Larre said, "I definitely like the oil companies and their insurance companies."

Most lawyers think it will be difficult to go after cash-strapped state and local governments, and aid groups, no matter how flawed their response to the crisis. Last week, Nagin announced layoffs of half of the city's 6,000 employees.

But Larre wonders whether the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the New Orleans levee system, can ultimately be blamed for the damage to neighborhoods that were steeped in the muddy waters for weeks.

"You really hit the jackpot if you nail the Army Corps of Engineers," he mused, standing in a mud-caked intersection in his shorts, T-shirt and running shoes. "The questions are, do they have immunity, and did they screw it up?"

Some are determined to try to hold local officials accountable anyway. New Orleans attorney Louis Roy Koerner Jr. has filed suit in the same court, arguing that the city's mandatory evacuation was unconstitutional because it was not fairly enforced. By evacuating residents, the suit alleges, the city prevented property owners from making urgent repairs and from protecting their properties against rain damage and looting.

"There are millions of dollars involved in this," Koerner said. "There are a lot of people really mad about what the city did." A call to the city's legal department seeking comment was not returned.

Among the deepest pockets in the region are the petroleum industry's. Several recently filed suits allege that one company's 85,000-gallon tank broke open and spilled oil into nearby homes in St. Bernard Parish. In another suit, state fishermen blame oil and gas pipeline companies for spills that they allege fouled fishing grounds. Others argue that the companies destroyed wetlands, leaving coastal communities more vulnerable to storms.

Local lawyers aren't the only ones who have taken an interest in the plight of Katrina victims. One prominent Florida attorney, Willie Gary, dispatched his private 32-passenger Boeing 737 jetliner, called the Wings of Justice II, to the Gulf Coast during the crisis. The plane, which has an 18-karat gold sink and a $1.2 million sound system, ferried supplies to the region and whisked evacuees to temporary quarters. A spokesman for the firm was unable to say Friday whether it had filed any cases on behalf of Katrina victims.

Some lawyers say they are planning to sue nursing homes, where many elderly residents died. Others are working for inmates who say they were trapped by the storm or beaten by guards.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed legal papers in the U.S. District Court for eastern Louisiana on Wednesday demanding access to Orleans Parish Prison to try to verify reports of prisoner abuse.

About 6,000 inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison spent three days inside the three-story lockup, allegedly without food or water. Almost all of their guards, the prisoners said, were evacuated. "We were trapped in the jail; we didn't know what was going to happen," said Earl Bolden, 28, who was finishing the last few weeks of a five-year sentence on drug charges and was released from a facility upstate in late September.

As the water rose a foot an hour, Bolden, who was held in a second-floor dormitory, and other inmates were terrified they might drown. Some of those not still locked in cells rampaged through the facility, smashing windows and ripping doors off hinges out of hunger, thirst and rage.

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