JEFFERSON, La. -- Should Jefferson Parish and former President Aaron Broussard be held financially responsible for some of the flooding after Hurricane Katrina because they evacuated pump station operators?
That's the question a jury could soon have to answer in a civil trial that got underway Monday in Gretna.
In the weeks after Katrina, Broussard and parish leaders defended their decision to evacuate the operators to Washington Parish.
“If I made the wrong decision and somebody died in one of these pumping stations, sir, I would never forgive myself,” Broussard said in 2006.
He admitted on national television that he had the ultimate say in evacuating the 200 operators -- he said in order to get them out of harm’s way -- before Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
Parish leaders even took out more than $40,000 in newspaper ads defending themselves after many people blamed the lack of pumping for their flooded homes.
“I know that if I leave those men in those pump stations, there's a good chance they'll die,” said former Jefferson Parish Emergency Manager Walter Maestri in 2006 about the decision he and Broussard had to make about the operators.
He said at the time that he was hearing from the National Weather Service that this was “the big one.” They called it the “Doomsday Scenario.”
Orleans Parish kept their pump operators in place, and because parts of Jefferson flooded that had never flooded before, many called it "The Broussard Flood."
It's what attorneys for Jefferson Parish will have to overcome as they try to pick a jury to hear the class action lawsuit against them.
“The bottom line is, how many [jurors] can you find? And can you do it within a reasonable amount of time? And only time will tell,” said attorney Joe Bruno.
Bruno is not involved in the Jefferson Parish lawsuit, but he unsuccessfully tried to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flooding in New Orleans and St Bernard Parish.
A federal appeals court ultimately ruled that the Corps was immune from liability.
The question of governmental immunity is something attorneys for the JP class of plaintiffs have, so far, overcome.
“The plaintiffs have to show in general that he breached a standard of care. The standard of care is what you would expect normal people under regular circumstances to do,” Bruno said.
Broussard is in prison serving time for federal corruption charges. He won't be at the trial. Attorneys told the panel of potential jurors Monday that a videotaped deposition of Broussard will be used instead of having him appear in court.
He’s serving time in a North Carolina prison.
Attorneys asked the first panel of prospective jurors how many of them knew how Aaron Broussard left office. Three quarters of them didn't.
“It's been a number of years. So, folks who didn't actually sustain flooding at all may be able to say to that judge honestly and without emotion, yes, I can be fair,” Bruno said.
After a day of questioning, attorneys were able pick six jurors who said they could be fair and impartial. That’s about half the number needed, depending on the number of alternates the judge decides to choose.
Attorneys for the parish asked for the case to be tried outside Jefferson for fear they could not get an impartial jury. All the judges in Jefferson Parish recused themselves, citing personal or familial impacts from Katrina. Judge John Peytavin was called in to hear the case ad hoc.
Attorneys will continue with their second round of jury selection Tuesday morning.