Sewerage & Water Board ordered to pay 10 more homeowners in Uptown drainage case

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Attorney Mike Whitaker, left, speaks to then-mayoral candidate Troy Henry in the Leche family kitchen in 2017 about damage to the home during the drainage canal construction outside on Jefferson Avenue. A crack is visible in the wall behind Whitaker. (Robert Morris, file photo)

In a ruling issued Friday, Judge Nakisha Ervin-Knott awarded nearly three-quarters of a million dollars ($770,435) to 10 homeowners for damages resulting from the Southeast Louisiana Urban Drainage Project construction. The Sewerage & Water Board is responsible for the damage, the judge ruled.

The trial is the third for Uptown homeowners suing S&WB for construction and vibration damage.

S&WB must pay the homeowners’ attorneys’ fees and costs, pushing the award to over $1 million, according to plaintiff attorney Michael Whitaker.

So far 25 cases have been litigated with 275 more to go. “Meanwhile, plaintiffs’ are living in damaged homes. This is simply wrong.” Whitaker said.

In November, Ervin-Knott found the Sewerage & Water Board liable for more than $500,000 in damages to 11 homes along the Napoleon Avenue drainage project, awarding sums ranging from $13,000 to $110,000 to the individual homeowners. The often-contentious Napoleon Avenue drainage project began in 1999 and was completed in April 2017.

Sewerage & Water Board attorneys are due in court on March 11 to defend a motion for sanctions and contempt of court for failing to produce important expert reports of damage to homes. The board’s attorneys have acknowledged their failure to produce this important evidence despite being asked for it many times.

Twenty more claims are set for trial in May, but Whitaker is pushing for a mediation or settlement in the cases.

“We have won three trials in a row now — what is the issue? The S&WB’s own financial reports acknowledge almost $50 million in damages from this project” Whitaker said. “Rather than mitigate its losses, the board is paying attorneys and experts hundreds of thousands of dollars to lose these cases in protracted litigation.”

The purpose of the SELA drainage program was authorized by Congress in 1996 to reduce flood damages in New Orleans and surrounding parishes, in part by building better drainage canals throughout the city. The S&WB and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversee the projects in New Orleans.

The lawsuits were first filed by three families in May 2015, with California-based Whitaker alleging that the construction of new drainage canals on Prytania Street and South Claiborne, Jefferson, Napoleon and Louisiana avenues had damaged the homes nearby.

The final phase of the Louisiana Avenue canal project, which began in 2014, is about 96 percent complete, according to the S&WB website. The Jefferson Avenue canal is about 98 percent complete.

Illustration of new Jefferson Avenue drainage canal. (via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

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