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Calcasieu Parish May Be Liable For Damages Resulting from Failure to Ensure Drainage After Hurricane

Governments traditionally were immune from lawsuit. That has changed. In certain circumstances, governments may be held liable for the damage they cause. A coulee flooded homes in Lake Charles after Hurricane Rita, although the area is protected by a drainage district that operates pumps and pipes to ensure drainage. The Louisiana Court of Appeal affirmed a jury award against the drainage district in Bordelon v. Gravity Drainage District No. 4 of Ward 3 of Calcasieu Parish, No. 10-1318 (La. Ct. App. 3 Cir. 10/5/11).

Drainage district employees typically stayed in pump houses during hurricanes, but in July 2005, Louisiana state officials determined that no evacuation site in Calcasieu Parish could withstand a category 4 or 5 hurricane. The drainage district has automated pumps run by electricity, but if the power went out, the diesel-fueled backup pumps required human operation. Hurricane Rita was expected to hit land as a category 4 or 5 hurricane. The district decided to allow its employees to evacuate with their families to Opelousas, Ville Platte, and Lafayette. The whole area south of Interstate 10 in Lake Charles was a part of the evacuation.

Rita unexpectedly weakened to category 3 when it made landfall on Friday, September 24, 2005. Electrical power was wiped out across a wide area. The drainage district’s electric pumps at Pithon Coulee stopped at 9 p.m. No one was in the pump house to start the diesel pumps. When residents returned the next morning, their homes were fine, but the coulee waters were rising. Drainage district employees had yet to be recalled. The houses began flooding from the rising coulee waters after 3 p.m. Saturday. Early on Sunday, the district workers returned. They turned on the pumps at 8:30 a.m. By noon, the coulee was below flood stage.

Twenty-four homeowners sought damages from the district because it failed to plan a way to automate the diesel pumps and because its decisions during Hurricane Rita resulted in flooding. The district argued it was protected by governmental immunity under Louisiana Revised Statutes. A jury awarded the homeowners $1,570,219.60, although it recognized that the liability of the district’s insurer, American Alternative Insurance Corporation, was limited to $1 million. The drainage district and its insurer appealed.

Courts strictly interpret immunity statutes to limit their reach. Two statutes may protect the district. The Louisiana Homeland Security and Emergency Assistance and Disaster Act provides immunity when a government is “engaged in any homeland security and emergency preparedness activities” as a part of complying with the Act. An unpublished court of appeal decision persuasively limits immunity to actions taken during an emergency, but not before. Based on that decision, the jury decided against the drainage district because it failed to have a plan in place before the hurricane’s forecasted arrival. The court of appeal agreed. “A failure to plan for an emergency is not an emergency preparedness activity under the statutes conferring immunity for such activities.” The district was not immune for not having a plan to keep pumps running when the pump houses were not staffed and power was out.

Louisiana state and local governments also are not liable “based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform their policymaking or discretionary acts when such acts are within the course and scope of their lawful powers and duties.” Immunity exists for policymaking or acts for which a choice is acceptable within the government’s delegated powers. If the act is “not reasonably related to the legitimate governmental objective for which the policymaking or discretionary power exists,” or was done criminally or in some way intentionally, immunity does not apply.

The Louisiana statute is patterned after the Federal Tort Claims Act. A two-part test determines if immunity applies. Did the government employee have discretion, a choice, or did law require the employee to follow a certain course of conduct? If a specific action is mandatory, no immunity applies. If the employee has a choice, was that discretion “grounded in social, economic or political policy”? If not, the government may be liable. Louisiana has adopted the federal test for the state governmental immunity statute.

The court of appeal recognized that planning is an act of discretion, and ensuring employee safety above concerns to protect property “is clearly within the discretion of the district.” But, automating the diesel pumps had never been considered, although it would cost only $40,000 and the money was available. By statute, “the drainage district shall make adequate provision for the drainage of all lands and property affected thereby.” The district was required to provide adequate drainage of all property. The failure to consider a feasible alternative to ensure compliance with a statutory mandate prevented immunity for the effects of not automating the pumps. The court of appeal affirmed the district court jury verdict.

If you believe you have been harmed by a government, it is hard to know what to do. Government duties come from statutes and regulations, and governments may be protected from lawsuits. But not always. A lawyer will be able to review your claim and determine the government’s authority and potential liability.

If you have been harmed by the acts of another, call the Berniard Law Firm toll free at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who can help you get the recovery you deserve.

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