“Next contestant, come on down.” On Oct. 6, in a bright courtroom in downtown Houston, Susan Braden, chief justice of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, opens a preliminary hearing with a joke, beckoning a lawyer forward. Braden has flown in from Washington to oversee disputes involving the homes and businesses flooded in West Houston after Hurricane Harvey made landfall over Texas in late August. She has summoned attorneys interested in suing, to get their thoughts on how the proceedings should unfold.
Almost 100 lawyers are present, combed and buzzing in anticipation of what promises to be some of the most complex and expensive litigation ever brought against the federal government. Observers speculate that thousands of plaintiffs could eventually join in, and that the total damages claimed could reach $10 billion or more, especially if the big energy and oil companies—whose presence in one section of West Houston gave it the nickname the Energy Corridor—sue over their flooded headquarters. Eighty suits, 11 of which are seeking class-action status, have been filed by homeowners against the federal government, though many of the Energy Corridor’s approximately 9,500 residents are still weighing their options, speed-dating lawyers by phone and at community meetings.