In Katrina’s wake, lawsuits and criminal charges are sure to follow
NEW ORLEANS – The arrest of two nursing-home owners in the deaths of 34 elderly patients could be just the beginning of an effort by prosecutors and plaintiffs’ attorneys to assign blame and hold accountable those responsible for some of the lives lost in Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters.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 attorneys 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 negligent homicide case against the Manganos, prosecutors allege the couple were warned of the approaching hurricane and 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 frail patients could have killed them.”If you pull that trigger too soon those people are going to die,” Cobb said.The attorney general said that among other things, he is also investigating the discovery of more than 40 corpses at flooded-out Memorial Medical Center, in New Orleans’ Uptown section. A hospital official has said that the 106-degree heat as the patients waited to be evacuated probably contributed to the deaths.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.Louisiana law defines negligent homicide as a “gross deviation below the standard of care expected to be maintained by a reasonably careful” person. 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.”Attorneys are going to come out of this pretty well,” Goyeneche said. “There will be plenty of work for the lawyers.”Business owners hurt by storm damage or looting, or who simply lost business because the city was evacuated and had no power for weeks, are already showing their insurance policies to attorneys.Brian Colwell, inspecting his Villa Vici furniture store in the Garden District on Wednesday, said he had already spoken with a lawyer.”Who knows? We’ve never seen anything like this and I’ve gotten the impression the insurance companies have all the angles covered,” Colwell said.Other business owners said they would consider a lawsuit as a last resort only.Fred Horton, owner of a flood-damaged art gallery and framing shop in suburban Jefferson Parish, wore a surgical mask as he and relatives piled water- and mold-damaged paintings and prints in the parking lot.”I’m going to try and avoid (a lawsuit) because the time and effort to go through it isn’t worth it,” he said.