First Trial Dates Set For FEMA Trailer Suits in New Orleans

February 12, 2009

A federal judge in New Orleans has scheduled the first four trials for a batch of lawsuits filed on behalf of hurricane victims who claim they were exposed to potentially toxic fumes while living in government-issued trailers.

An order issued Feb. 10 by U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt says cases against Gulf Stream, Fleetwood, Forest River and Keystone RV will be the first to be tried. The federal government also is expected be a defendant in each case.

The first of four trials is tentatively scheduled to start Sept. 14. The next three are scheduled to start in October, December and January.

Hundreds of residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama who were displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 have sued the government and the companies that furnished the Federal Emergency Management Agency with tens of thousands of trailers after the storms.

Government tests found elevated levels of formaldehyde in many FEMA trailers. Formaldehyde, a preservative commonly found in construction materials, can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.

In December, Engelhardt refused to grant class-action status to trailer dwellers’ lawsuits, saying each person’s claim is unique and must be examined individually. The judge also has ruled that the federal government isn’t entitled to immunity from the suits.

Plaintiffs for the first four trials haven’t been named yet. Engelhardt directed lawyers on both sides of the case to pick four plaintiffs from a pool of at least 50.

The plaintiffs from the first four cases will most likely be limited to residents of southeastern Louisiana.

Gerald Meunier, a lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the four “bellweather” trials should show both sides’ strengths and weaknesses of the cases. Meunier also suggested that the outcome of the trials could stimulate a “global resolution,” such as a settlement, of all cases.

“We’re satisfied that the court is proceeding in the right way,” he said.

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