A federal jury on Thursday (Sept. 24) rejected a New Orleans family’s
assertions that the government-issued trailer they lived in after
Hurricane Katrina exposed them to dangerous fumes, in the first of
several trials that could lead to hundreds of similar claims being
Five men and three women decided that a trailer made by Gulf Stream
Coach Inc. and occupied by Alana Alexander and her 12-year-old son,
Christopher Cooper, was not “unreasonably dangerous” in its
construction. One juror said the plaintiffs’ attorneys never had the
“smoking gun” that proved their case, according to the Associated Press.
The jury also concluded that Fluor Enterprises Inc., which had a
contract to install FEMA trailers, wasn’t negligent. The federal
government wasn’t a defendant in this first of several “bellwether”
trials, which are designed to help the New Orleans court test the merits
and possibly settle of other claims over formaldehyde exposure in FEMA
Lawyers on both sides wouldn’t speculate on how the verdict could
affect other cases. A law professor who specializes in toxic tort cases
said verdicts in bellwether trials can steer parties toward a mass
settlement of similar claims.
Alexander and Cooper lived in a FEMA trailer for 19 months after Hurricane Katrina damaged their home in August 2005.
Alexander’s lawyers claimed elevated levels of formaldehyde
aggravated Cooper’s asthma and increased his risk of getting cancer.
Formaldehyde, a chemical commonly found in construction materials, can
cause breathing problems and has been classified as a carcinogen.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys accused Gulf Stream and other trailer makers
of using shoddy materials and methods in a rush to meet the Federal
Emergency Management Agency’s unprecedented demand for temporary
shelters after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Gulf Stream denied its
trailer jeopardized the health of Alexander and her family. A company
lawyer also noted that Alexander took her son off a steroid medication
for his asthma for more than two years.
The jury heard eight days of testimony and deliberated about four hours before delivering its decision.
Juror Roy Pierce, 43, of Boutte, said he was troubled by testimony
about some of Gulf Stream’s “in-house practices” but didn’t think the
evidence supported a verdict against the companies.
“You didn’t have the smoking gun,” he said.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Gerald Meunier said he was disappointed. “We
thought we presented a strong case. The jury has spoken on this one,” he
Andrew Weinstock, a lawyer for Nappanee, Ind.-based Gulf Stream,
said FEMA had purchased thousands of trailers from the company since
1992 without receiving any formaldehyde complaints until 2006.
Weinstock said the company is pleased with the outcome, but he
wouldn’t speculate on how the verdict could impact similar cases
“If some good came from this, it’s that Christopher Cooper is now
on the proper asthma medication … and we’re happy for that,” he added.
Pavel Wonsowicz, a UCLA School of Law professor who specialized in
toxic tort and products liability cases as a trial attorney in Boston,
said verdicts in bellwether trials can steer parties toward settling
many others. But lawyers typically wait for several cases to be tried,
he said. For example, Merck Inc. had won 10 of 15 federal and state
court verdicts – including four of five in federal court – when it
agreed to a $4.85 billion settlement with people who had suffered heart
attacks or strokes after taking its painkiller Vioxx for at least 30
Before the trailer trial started, U.S. District Judge Kurt
Engelhardt ruled that a two-year statute of limitations bars Cooper’s
claims against the government. Pierce said he doesn’t know if the jury
would have reached a different verdict if the government hadn’t been
dismissed from the lawsuit. “It was a tough decision,” he said. “It
Alexander’s trailer was made in 2004 for FEMA to use after a
hurricane in Florida, but it wasn’t occupied until her family moved in
after Katrina. Weinstock said during his closing arguments that Gulf
Stream wasn’t obligated to build a “perfect product.”
“It’s a nice piece of equipment. It’s not the Taj Mahal,” he said of the travel trailers, which are smaller than mobile homes.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Mikal Watts said Gulf Stream made an
“unreasonably dangerous” trailer and Flour compounded the formaldehyde
risks by improperly installing it. FEMA relied on the companies to
provide safe shelters, Watts added.
“Frankly, I think they were trying to clean up somebody else’s
mess, and they should not be held responsible,” Watts said of FEMA.
Weinstock told jurors that formaldehyde is found in safe levels in
many products, including cosmetics, foods and shampoo. He downplayed the
link between formaldehyde and cancer, saying only one scientific group
has classified the chemical as a carcinogen.
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.
“If these trailers weren’t dangerous, would there be 30,000 of them sitting in a field?” plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee said.
From RV Business