Hurricane Katrina whistleblower Ivor van Heerden files wrongful termination lawsuit against LSU

The suit by Dr. Ivor van Heerden, author of The Storm, alleges that LSU retaliated against him for speaking out about the engineering, maintenance and logistical failures that led to the post-Katrina disaster.

On February 10, 2010, KMB partner David Marshall and Professor Ivor van Heerden held a press conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, to announce the filing of a wrongful termination and retaliation lawsuit against the Louisiana State University ("LSU"). Counsel for Dr. van Heerden issued the following press release:

Dr. Ivor van Heerden, a world-recognized disaster science specialist, hurricane researcher, author, and former deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center, today filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in Louisiana state court alleging that LSU officials waged a campaign of retaliation against him that culminated with the termination of his position with the university.

The whistleblower suit alleges that Dr. van Heerden, an LSU Associate Professor and leader of the state team that conducted a comprehensive investigation into the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, was subjected to a multi-year campaign of retaliatory harassment after he made critical comments concerning the failure of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to safeguard the City of New Orleans.

Following the devastating flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Dr. van Heerden led the comprehensive investigation into its cause by the State of Louisiana Forensic Data Gathering Team (“Team Louisiana”). The lawsuit states that Dr. van Heerden found that the Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for a levee design that was a “geotechnical engineering failure.” He testified before Congress that “Not to have given the residents the security of proper levees is inexcusable.” Dr. van Heerden also authored numerous articles in policy journals and, in 2006, his bestselling book “The Storm,” in which he attributed 80% to 90% of the flooding in New Orleans to the Corps’ levee design failures.

University officials attempted to silence Dr. van Heerden, the suit alleges, because they believed that his investigation and comments jeopardized LSU’s relationship with the federal government and the Army Corps of Engineers. According to the lawsuit, LSU officials called Dr. van Heerden into a meeting in late 2005 and “admonished him for his public criticisms of the Corps” and said he had “jeopardized LSU’s prospects for federal funding.”

Later, in April 2007, shortly after the final report of Team Louisiana, Dr. van Heerden was asked to serve as an expert witness for the plaintiffs against the federal government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a lawsuit that alleged engineering design and maintenance errors at the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO). As required by LSU procedure, Dr. van Heerden requested permission from the university to testify, but received no response for months. When LSU Chancellor Sean O’Keefe finally responded, he stated that “Dr. van Heerden would be fired if he testified against the Corps,” the lawsuit alleges.

Unsuccessful in their effort to muzzle him, the suit states, the defendants “ultimately terminated his employment with the university by manipulating the policies and procedures governing faculty appointments at LSU.” Dr. van Heerden was informed of the termination of his position at LSU in April, 2009.

The whistleblower suit further alleges that the defendants not only violated Dr. van Heerden’s First Amendment rights, state law and his university contract, but also “placed the bureaucratic interests of university officials above the health and safety of millions of people who live in the path of the hurricanes that threaten the Gulf Coast every year.”

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the LSU Board of Supervisors and four university officials: then-Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Brooks Keel, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Robert Twilley, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Chairman George Voyiadjis and College of Engineering Dean David Constant.

Attorney David Marshall of the law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, is representing Dr. van Heerden in this action. “Speaking the truth should not cost you your job or allow others to smear your reputation in order to protect their own interests,” said Marshall, “Dr. van Heerden seeks justice not solely for himself, but for the principles of free speech, academic freedom and the right of scientists and university faculty to speak freely without fear of retaliation.”

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