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In a ruling that could leave the government open to billions of dollars in claims from Hurricane Katrina victims, a federal judge said late Wednesday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had displayed “gross negligence” in failing to maintain a navigation channel — resulting in levee breaches that flooded large swaths of greater New Orleans.

U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval peppered his 156-page decision, issued in New Orleans, with harsh criticism of the Army corps, at one point citing its “insouciance, myopia and shortsightedness” in failing to maintain the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, known locally as MRGO.

For more than 40 years, the judge said, the corps had known that a crucial levee protecting suburban St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood would be compromised by the deterioration of the channel. The corps had “myriad” ways to address the problem, he wrote, but failed to do so.

Duval awarded a total of $719,000 to a small group of flood victims that sued the government in April 2006.

But according to Pierce O’Donnell, the lead plaintiff’s counsel, roughly 100,000 New Orleans-area residents and businesses who have filed flood-damage claims with the Army corps were now potentially eligible for payment.

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