By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN Associated Press Writer © 2008 The Associated Press
Dec. 2, 2008
NEW ORLEANS — Plaintiffs’ lawyers asked a judge Tuesday to certify a class action lawsuit against the federal government and dozens of trailer manufacturers for allegedly exposing Gulf Coast hurricane victims to potentially dangerous fumes while living in emergency shelters.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt didn’t immediately rule on that request after hearing arguments from attorneys on both sides of the litigation, a batch of lawsuits filed on behalf of hundreds of people who lived in government-issued trailers after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
Engelhardt also heard testimony Tuesday from scientific experts about the effects of formaldehyde, a preservative found in construction materials that can cause breathing problems and is classified as a cancer causing chemical.
Tests by government scientists found elevated levels of formaldehyde in many of the trailers that storm victims lived in after the 2005 storms. Plaintiffs’ lawyers accuse trailer makers of using shoddy materials and building methods in a rush to meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s unprecedented demand for emergency housing after Katrina and Rita.
Attorneys for storm victims say certifying the lawsuits as a class action would efficiently resolve all the consolidated cases from Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama that Engelhardt is presiding over in New Orleans.
“It provides a unique vehicle for the fair and efficient disposition of common issues, regardless of outcome, and it safeguards the resources of the judicial system in litigation where thousands of claims arise from a catastrophic event,” plaintiffs wrote in court papers.
But lawyers for the government and the trailer makers say the cases must be handled individually because they involve different states, companies and types of claims.
“Individual issues overwhelmingly predominate, and this lack of cohesiveness makes individual trials, not class treatment, the superior method for managing these cases,” wrote Andrew Weinstock, a lawyer for trailer makers.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested the air quality in hundreds of occupied trailers and found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times higher than what people are exposed to in most modern homes.
During Tuesday’s hearing, a government lawyer displayed an owner’s manual that warned FEMA trailer occupants to frequently ventilate the units. The lawyer, Adam Dinnell, asked toxicologist Patricia Williams if that would be an effective way to reduce exposure to formaldehyde.
“Some of it. Not all of it,” said Williams, a plaintiffs’ witness.