Why the Trinity River Project Could Be a Windfall for the Lawyer Who Sues the Army Corps of Engineers

I love plaintiff's lawyers. I wish they were way richer. I hate "tort reform." Plaintiff's lawyers are cool, because they sue the socks off bullies. That's what this column is about.

I would urge any plaintiff's lawyer who might be reading this column to snip it out of the paper and file it away somewhere. If a son or daughter is following in your footsteps, you might possibly paperclip this column to your will. I think there will be serious money in it some day.

BIG money. Not sort of big. We're talking the kind of numbers you usually see in stories about gross national products. Win this one, and your descendants will be wind-surfing and collecting pre-Columbian pots in Mexico for the next thousand years.

I'm not wishing ill on my community. To the contrary, I wish we could avoid disaster. The Trinity River Project, as currently planned, is dangerous and irresponsible. But since social responsibility and simple conscience seem beyond the grasp of the people pushing it, I'm hoping sheer fear of litigation may slow them down. That's where you come in, my lovely lawyers.

The experts looking at the recent U.S. District Court decision on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Katrina damages in New Orleans are putting the potential total liability of the Corps in the trillions of dollars. That's what I'm talking about. But here. In Dallas.

Down the road—how far I don't know but down the road—somebody stands to take down the Corps, the Federal Highway Administration, the state of Texas, the city of Dallas and the North Texas Tollway Authority for a similar or even bigger prize than what's at stake in New Orleans.

In a November 24 story, The Dallas Morning News reported as fact the following: "The judge's ruling [in New Orleans] that the corps must pay damages to Katrina victims hinges on a legal distinction that is unlikely to be relevant in Dallas. That means that even if the corps were to be blamed for a future flooding catastrophe, it is highly unlikely it would be held legally liable."

Let me explain that for you. That is intended to mean, "Nothing here in Dallas for plaintiff's attorneys. Nope. No action. Might as well not even think about it. Plaintiff's attorneys need not apply."

So, once you interpret that out of Belo-ese, what does that really mean? C'mon. You guys are way ahead of me on this, right? If the Morning News says plaintiff's attorneys need not apply, what should plaintiff's attorneys do?

Apply.

The truth here is that the breach of sovereign immunity opened by the plaintiff's lawyers in the New Orleans MR-GO (Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet) lawsuit is based on facts that may have significant parallels in the Dallas Trinity River Project.

When the News says no? You go.

For the non-lawyers who may be reading, sovereign immunity is a protection government gives itself from lawsuits. The Corps of Engineers is the civil engineering branch of the Army. Under laws that made the Corps the nation's keeper of all major flood works, special provisions gave the Corps immunity from lawsuits for anything to do with the dams, levees and other flood control projects it builds.

MR-GO (Mister Go, as they call it in New Orleans) is a shipping canal built by the Corps in 1965 as a shortcut from the gulf to the inner harbor of New Orleans. It is not a flood control project.

Plaintiff's attorneys persuaded a federal judge that Mister Go contributed in several big ways to the damages associated with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, mainly by acting as a funnel that brought a huge sea surge right up into the city.

The Corps, of course, said: No way. You can't sue us. This is about flood damage. We're immune on that. But Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. said: Yes way (I paraphrase). You're immune for damages caused by your flood control projects. But you're not immune for flood damages caused by your non-flood-control projects. A shipping canal is a transportation project, not a flood control project.

Let's just pretend for the sake of conversation that some or all of Duval's Mister Go ruling endures the appeals process. What would be the parallel here?

The Trinity River Project in Dallas is a flood control project in name only. Many billions of dollars will be spent on several elements, most of which have nothing to do with flood control.

A multi-lane, high-speed toll road is to be built right out between the flood control levees, next to the river where it floods every spring and fall. Then lakes will be dug. Parks developed. Paved walking trails. Decorative suspension bridges built.

We're all aware, meanwhile, that the basic levee system protecting downtown and Oak Cliff from inundation—22.8 miles of dirt berm on the east and west banks of the Trinity River through central Dallas—has been declared unsafe by the Corps of Engineers.

The Corps, which is responsible for the levees, is trying to put the brakes on the rest of the project, claiming now that it is responsible only for the flood control elements of the plan.

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