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MC Law symposium looks at Hurricane Katrina legal issues

JACKSON — Mississippi College School of Law assembled a group of national scholars and distinguished law practitioners to discuss the myriad legal issues left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The August 29th symposium, held on the one-year anniversary of the storm, was aptly titled “Hurricane Katrina: A Legal Symposium” examined the impact of America’s largest natural disaster from Waveland to Washington, D.C.

Sponsored by the school’s Law Review, attendees could earn six hours of continuing legal education (CLE) for the symposium. Law Review editor John Howell said it was the largest CLE event in the school’s history, a number almost double the usual number. Other participants also attended for a total of about 500 people. In addition to state residents, two employees from the Louisiana State Attorney General’s Office and attorneys from Alabama and Indiana attended.

“There is a lot of interest in these subjects and it was the best event of this type we’ve ever had,” he said. “It was a come-and-go event that lasted all day, but I know at one time we had 340 people in the room. We had a great turnout of students.”

The Law Review’s 13-member board thought the Katrina legal issues would be timely and relevant given the extent to which it affected the state. “It worked out well logistically and attracted attention in the legal community and the media,” Howell said.

The program cover featured a quote from U. S. Sen. Thad Cochran who said, “I don’t know anything that is more disturbing than going along the Gulf Coast area and being aware of all the damage. It’s one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen.”

Deciding on the topics of discussion was not difficult as plenty of issues have arisen following the hurricane. “Some are being litigated or soon will be and we thought the panel discussions would be useful for attorneys,” Howell said. “It was a good forum for discussion of divergent opinions. There are a lot of hot buttons such as land use issues that will be around for a long time.”

Those issues included federalism and disaster response; the role of the military in disaster response; insurance and catastrophe in the case of Katrina and beyond; allocating the costs of recovery; smart growth in rebuilding; how sprawl has shaped American cities; and avoiding dumb growth.
“The symposium gave good coverage to the most salient issues and those being currently litigated,” Howell said. “We may follow up with another event down the road as we look at Katrina, but there is nothing planned at this time.”

He said the largest crowd was present for the insurance session. “That was probably because of the all-star cast. We thought we had a good balance of opinions and presenters,” he said. “I think everyone knew at the outset there would be no consensus reached on this subject.”

That heavy-hitting lineup included state Attorney General Jim Hood, state Deputy Insurance Commissioner Lee Harrell, nationally-known attorney Richard Scruggs, national insurance industry spokesperson Joe Annotti and Washington and Lee University professor Adam F. Scales.

MC School of Law professor Gregory W. Bowman moderated the panel discussion on insurance topics. “It was an excellent, lively discussion,” he said. “Everyone was very passionate but civil. It was an ideal panel. The cases were stated very compellingly and I think it was beneficial to those attending.”

Bowman, who teaches contract law, says he doesn’t know that consensus is possible on insurance issues at this point. He feels the opinion recently handed down by Judge Senter in the case of a Pascagoula homeowner’s suit against Allstate Insurance Company is a step forward to help resolve these issues.

“The process is underway. In my view, it’s a well-reasoned opinion, and it’s better to have something to help resolve these open-ended issues and what these contracts mean and who has the burden of proof,” he said. “A lot was resolved as a matter of law in the Leonard case. It will affect rebuilding on the Coast and will proceed on a case-by-case basis.”

The professor plans to post a summary of the insurance panel discussion on his blog at http://law-career.blogspot.com/.
Howell said three visiting law professors took different perspectives as to the role of the federal government in disaster response. The three panelists were Michael Greenberger, professor and director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland School of Law; William C. Banks, professor and director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University College of Law; and Christina E. Wells, professor at the University of Missouri School of Law.

Is it constitutional for the government to be involved? “That question was raised,” he said. “Certainly there is a role, given the scale of the disaster. The division of power, coordination and communication safeguards must be put in place.”

He said the general consensus of the panelists is that the federal government should be involved, but there was disagreement as to the role and the amount of respect given to state governments.

“A contrast was drawn between the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana with the consensus that our (Mississippi’s) response was more effective and appropriate,” Howell said.
Although the law school will not recommend any actions based on discussions at the symposium, the Law Review will publish remarks of the presenters in the winter issue. ”It will be useful to put disparate views out there for all to consider,” Howell said. “I think the state Legislature will be cognizant of the ideas surrounding these issues.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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