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Judge rules in favor of Missouri, Kansas landowners who say government is to blame for flood damage

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Four years and millions of documents later, landowners in four states, including Missouri and Kansas, have won a major legal victory against the federal government.

A Federal Claims Court judge ruled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is to blame for recurrent flooding that damaged farms and property along the Missouri River in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas.

In all, 372 plaintiffs filed the mass action lawsuit in 2014, claiming they relied on flood control efforts to settle on and farm land along the river. Then, they alleged, the policies of river management changed to focusing on wildlife preservation, which in turn changed the course of the river and led to flooding between 2007 and 2013.

The court found the government liable in all but 2011. The plaintiffs were seeking more than $300 million in the lawsuit, which used a unique legal theory to claim damages.

The plaintiffs alleged their land had been “taken without just compensation” under principals of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Simply, they had relied on the flood control flow of the river to populate and farm the river lowlands subject to flooding. Then the Corps of Engineers shifted its strategy to focus on wildlife preservation, which changed the flow of the river and led to flooding and massive damages.

“As a farmer and landowner who has experienced substantial losses from these floods, I’m extremely pleased with this outcome,” said Roger Ideker of Ideker Farms in St. Joseph. Ideker is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“It rightfully recognizes the Government’s responsibility for changing the river and subjecting us to more flooding than ever before,” he said in a statement provided by his attorneys.

Saying he is pleased with the ruling, lead attorney Dan Boulware of Polsinelli added in a statement, “It should now be clear that we have a changed river – one that is flood prone. We hope the Corps of Engineers will now do the right thing for our clients and that Congress will also act soon to restore flood control to a higher priority as it was during the last century.”

Tuesday’s ruling marks the end of Phase 1 of the litigation: a finding of liability. That phase opened last March, with testimony in Kansas City and Washington, D.C. Closing arguments were completed in December.

Lawyers say Phase 2 will follow, to determine the extent of the damages. It’s not clear how long that will take.