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First Toxic FEMA Trailer Lawsuit Now Underway

Sep 21, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

The first trial involving the allegedly toxic trailers the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) distributed to Gulf Coast hurricane victims in 2005 got underway last week in New Orleans.  According to the Associated Press, trailer maker Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and government contractor Fluor Enterprises Inc. are defendants in the case.  The federal government is not a defendant, though it has been named one in thousands of other FEMA trailer lawsuits.

At one point, as many as 143,000 families left homeless following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were living in toxic FEMA trailers. As anyone who reads this blog knows, FEMA’s response to the toxic trailer debacle was less than stellar. By 2006 FEMA was getting reports from field workers along the Gulf Coast that residents of FEMA trailers where getting sick from the air in the toxic trailers. The first suspect was formaldehyde, an invisible gas that is known to cause cancer. It can also cause other illnesses ranging from nose bleeds to chronic bronchitis. Commonly used in manufactured homes, formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.

E-mails uncovered during a congressional investigation into the toxic trailers showed that FEMA lawyers told the agency to drag its feet on air quality testing. FEMA’s Office of General Council also advised the agency not to test the trailers because doing so “would imply FEMA’s ownership of the issue”.

In late 2007, FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finally conducted air quality tests of 519 trailers. The CDC tests confirmed that the FEMA trailers posed a serious danger to residents still living in them. The average formaldehyde levels found in the toxic trailers measured 77ppb (parts per billions), significantly higher than the 10 to 17 ppb concentration seen in newer homes. When it announced its findings, the CDC urged FEMA to move residents from the toxic trailers as quickly as possible, with priority given to families with children, elderly people or anyone with asthma or other chronic conditions.

Last Monday, the first "bellwether" trial began in federal court in New Orleans.  According to the Associated Press, the lawsuit in this case was brought by a New Orleans woman who claims her son developed asthma because of his time living in formaldehyde-filled FEMA trailer.  The lawsuit alleges Gulf Stream and Fluor Enterprises failed to warn about the trailers' potential risks.

According to Court House News Service, the Chairman of the Board of Gulf Stream testified at the trial via videotape.  When Jim Shea Jr. was asked what "protocol" Gulf Stream told trailer residents to follow if  they were "sensitive" to formaldehyde, Shea responded, "To turn on the air-conditioning full blast and open the window,' Court News Service said.   

Shea insisted that Gulf Stream was not aware of the high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers. But according to Court House News Service, Shea  acknowledged that his company sent a worker to New Orleans in March 2006 after the media had begun reporting on problems with the trailers.  That employee - a Gulf Stream Vice President - complained about his eyes "tearing up" when he entered a FEMA trailer, Court House News Service said.


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