First Trial over FEMA Trailer Fumes Set to Begin in New Orleans

September 14, 2009

Years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita left thousands of families living in government-issued trailers, one of the first trials is set to begin over whether dangerous fumes from the temporary homes sickened storm victims.

The lawsuits accuse trailer makers of providing the Federal Emergency Management Agency with shoddy mobile homes in a rush to meet unprecedented demand for temporary housing after the 2005 hurricanes. The plaintiffs’ lawyers also claim FEMA was slow to respond to concerns about formaldehyde, jeopardizing residents’ health.

FEMA, however, has been dismissed from one of the first cases because a judge ruled the claims against the federal government were brought too late. Attorneys are expected to appeal that ruling, though it’s not expected to hold up this “bellwether” trial.

In this first case, New Orleans resident Alana Alexander and her son, Christopher Cooper, are suing Indiana-based trailer maker Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and government contractor Fluor Enterprises Inc.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin today.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Gerald Meunier said he expects the companies to blame FEMA even though the government isn’t part of the lawsuit and can’t be ordered to pay any damages.

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt is presiding over hundreds of consolidated suits that claim residents who lived in FEMA trailers were exposed to elevated levels of formaldehyde, a chemical that is classified as a carcinogen and can cause breathing problems.

Government tests on hundreds of trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes. FEMA downplayed formaldehyde risks for months before those test results were announced in February 2008.

Alexander and Cooper, now 12 years old, moved into a FEMA travel trailer in May 2006 after Katrina damaged their home. Their suit claims formaldehyde fumes in the trailer aggravated Cooper’s asthma and gave them itchy eyes and a burning sensation in their noses. They lived in the unit until December 2007, shortly after Alexander heard about formaldehyde concerns.

Gulf Stream, based in Nappanee, Ind., claims Cooper’s asthma sent him to an emergency room several times before Katrina. When he went to an emergency room for an asthma attack on Dec. 2 2007, he told doctors that hadn’t had another attack in the previous year, the company said in court papers.

The company also questioned Alexander’s claim that formaldehyde was responsible for the eye, nose and throat irritation she reported.

“No doctor has examined her and reached that conclusion,” the company said in court papers. “No expert retained by her attorneys has opined that she has or had a formaldehyde-related injury.”

A spokesman for Fluor Enterprises, which had a contract to install FEMA trailers, said its work “enabled more than 160,000 people displaced by Hurricane Katrina to have a place to live while they got their lives back to normal.”

“While it is not Fluor’s policy to comment on pending legal matters, we will vigorously defend our work in court,” company spokesman Keith Stephens said in a written statement.

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