A federal jury began deliberating today (Sept. 24) in New Orleans in the first trial over claims that government-issued trailers exposed Gulf Coast hurricane victims to potentially hazardous fumes, according to the Associated Press.
After eight days of testimony, the jury heard closing arguments in the case against trailer manufacturer Gulf Stream Coach Inc. of Nappanee, Ind., and government contractor Fluor Enterprises Inc.
The plaintiffs for this first of several “bellwether” trials are New Orleans resident Alana Alexander and her 12-year-old son, Christopher Cooper, who lived in a FEMA trailer for 19 months after Hurricane Katrina damaged their home in August 2005.
Alexander’s lawyers claim elevated levels of formaldehyde in the family’s trailer 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 accuse Gulf Stream and other trailer makers of using shoddy materials and methods in a rush to meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) unprecedented demand for temporary shelters after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
“We’re talking about them putting expediency and profit over the safety and the long-term health of the people they were supposed to be serving,” plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee said in closing arguments.
Gulf Stream denies its trailer jeopardized the health of Alexander and her family. Andrew Weinstock, a lawyer for the company, said FEMA had purchased thousands of trailers from Gulf Stream since 1992 without receiving any formaldehyde complaints until 2006.
“We sold this to the most sophisticated purchaser in the world, the United States government,” Weinstock said. “You don’t go out and warn people about something they know about and something they’ve never had a problem with.”
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 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.
The federal government isn’t a defendant in this case, although it has been sued in many other cases consolidated in the New Orleans federal court. Before the trial started, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled that a two-year statute of limitations bars Cooper’s claims against the government.
If jurors decide Cooper was injured, they can assign a percentage of fault to Gulf Stream, Fluor or FEMA, but the plaintiffs couldn’t recover any damages from the government.
Jurors also can assign a percentage of fault to Alexander, who took her son off a steroid medication for his asthma for more than two years.
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.
Fluor Enterprises had a contract to haul and install FEMA trailers and used subcontractors to perform the work.
“What did they prove? They proved zero about my client,” said Fluor attorney Charles Penot.
Weinstock said 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 agency has classified the chemical as a carcinogen.
“This case is not about cancer,” he said.
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?” Buzbee said. “Any taxpayer should be appalled.”