A 2-year-old lawsuit by homeowners and businesses who say the Sewerage & Water Board should have to pay for damages they incurred during construction of a massive drainage project Uptown may finally be headed to trial after a federal court ruling Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt dismissed a second attempt by the S&WB to shift blame for the damage to contractors working on the project and sent the case back to Civil District Court.
The 275 plaintiffs in the suit argue that their properties were damaged by work on the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project over the past several years, particularly the major construction involved in building giant new underground culverts under Napoleon, Jefferson and Louisiana avenues and nearby roadways. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the project.
The fences have come down on most of Napoleon Avenue and sod is being rolled out across the neutral ground. The huge construction crews that took up most of the roadway and snarled traffic have dwindled to a few workers. And below the surface now lie culverts — large enough to accommodate a school bus — waiting to hold water until it can it be pumped out of the Uptown neighborhood above...
That project, which is being built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is intended to improve drainage in the area enough that it can handle a rainstorm that has a 10 percent chance of occurring in a given year.
But vibrations and other disturbances caused by the work also led to more than $80 million in property damage in the area, according to the suit.
The S&WB is targeted by the suit because it is the local partner in the project and is required to bear liability for any damage under the agreements it signed with the Corps, which has a broad immunity from suits based on damage caused by its projects.
The utility has sought to pass that responsibility on to the contractors doing the actual work on the project.
But contractors working on federal projects share in the agency’s immunity as long as they follow the agency’s designs, and an effort to shift the blame to them had previously been denied by Engelhardt and by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The S&WB had sought to use the fact that several dozen new plaintiffs had been added to the case to revive that issue, but Engelhardt once again shot down that effort.
In his ruling, Engelhardt also kicked the case back to Civil District Court Judge Nakisha Ervin-Knott, who was originally overseeing the case. The first trials on some of the plaintiffs' claims are expected to start in January.