Katrina Victims Win Latest Court Battles

Thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina finally have some good news to celebrate: A U.S. District Court judge ruled yesterday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) must resume making housing-relief payments to those displaced by the disaster. In handing down his decision, Judge Richard Leon delivered a sharp rebuke to FEMA and the Bush Administration, calling FEMA’s application process “Kafkaesque” and even unconstitutional. Earlier this week, a Louisiana judge ruled that flood victims may be eligible for further compensation from insurers than originally delegated.

In his ruling against FEMA, Judge Leon, who was appointed by President Bush, ordered the agency to immediately restore its short-term housing-relief benefits for evacuees, including the benefits they would have received over the past three months. It also requires FEMA to send out detailed, clearly worded letters of explanation with “more fulsome instructions” to those whose benefits are being denied. Previous FEMA notices were “unconstitutionally vague and uninformative,” according to Leon. In addition, FEMA must institute a fair and easy-to-understand appeals process for the victims.

“It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights,” Leon wrote.

In Monday’s ruling, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. allowed to proceed a lawsuit brought by New Orleans homeowners against various insurance companies. Plaintiffs have cited ambiguous language in the insurers’ water-damage policies and are suing to collect further compensation for flood damage. Duval noted that the policies didn’t sufficiently differentiate between acts of God (rain) and acts of man (levees breaking). Duval’s ruling may end up costing insurers in Louisiana close to $1 billion and may open the door for further legal action against the insurance companies.

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