After Katrina, 'a glut of lawsuits' expected to be filed

Thursday, September 15, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- The arrest of two nursing-home owners in the deaths of 34 elderly patients in Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters could be just the beginning of an effort by prosecutors and plaintiffs' attorneys to assign blame and hold those responsible for the New Orleans catastrophe accountable.

Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti, who announced the charges against Salvador and Mable Mangano on Tuesday, is promising to investigate every hospital and nursing home death for signs of negligence.

And in a city where the damage is expected to reach into the tens of billions of dollars, there could be enough civil litigation to keep lawyers busy for years.

"A glut of lawsuits are going to be filed over all of this," said Rafael Goyeneche, a former Louisiana prosecutor and executive director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission of Greater New Orleans, a private watchdog group.

In the case against the Manganos, prosecutors allege the couple failed to evacuate the residents of St. Rita's Nursing Home before the floodwaters engulfed the place. "Their inaction resulted in the deaths," Foti said.

The Manganos' attorney, Jim Cobb, said the couple had a tough decision, because just moving the patients could have killed them.

E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said he does not expect to see many negligent homicide cases brought by prosecutors.

Adams said the question for prosecutors trying to make such a case is whether the negligence of the caretaker was a greater cause of the death than the storm.

"A lot of people have died, a lot of people have been hurt," he said. "But attributing criminal negligence to the actions of folks is something to be carefully done."

Goyeneche noted that criminal conduct is more difficult to prove, primarily because the burden of proof in such cases is "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," versus "by a preponderance of the evidence" in civil cases.

"Being able to prove that people cut corners to the point that they exceeded negligence, perhaps with some graft in regards to something like levee construction, is going to be difficult to prove," he said.

But Goyeneche said there could be a variety of civil cases over:

--Levee breaches, one of which flooded thousands of homes in New Orleans and neighboring St. Bernard Parish to the east. "I'm sure there will be a federal investigation, and if fault is assigned, there will be a massive class-action," Goyeneche said.

--A large oil spill at the Murphy Oil Co. refinery in St. Bernard Parish, which Goyeneche called "a class-action waiting for a place to happen."

--Deaths of patients in hospitals and nursing homes.

--And disputed insurance claims.

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