NEW ORLEANS (CN) – It took a jury less than 3 hours on Monday to reject a man’s claim that toxic levels of formaldehyde in a FEMA trailer where he lived for 2 years after Hurricane Katrina caused a benign throat tumor and made him vomit blood. The eight-person jury cleared trailer manufacturer Forest River, of Goshen, Ind.
The jury found that the trailer in which 39-year-old Lyndon Wright lived was not “unreasonably dangerous” in construction or design. And it found that Shaw Environmental of Baton Rouge was not negligent in installing the trailer.
It’s the second straight win for trailer manufacturers. In September 2009, a jury cleared Gulf Stream Coach, which supplied FEMA with emergency travel trailers, of similar claims.
FEMA, which provided more than 140,000 travel trailers to Katrina refugees, was not a defendant in this trial, as was originally expected. Before the trial started, U.S. District Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt ruled that Wright did not file paperwork alleging personal injury within the proper time frame, which exempted FEMA from participation in the trial.
Frank D’Amico Jr., one of Wright’s attorneys, said the verdict was disappointing, but that it doesn’t mean anything for cases awaiting trial.
“Every case turns on its own,” he said.
Forest River attorney Ernest Geiger called the verdict is “a victory for common sense.”
In his closing arguments, Geiger said that in Wright’s tax returns for 2007 and 2008 he claimed 10,000 business miles, and his earnings rose over the two years.
“Look how much he was working,” Geiger said, adding that if Wright had been as sick as he claimed, it would have affected his ability to work.
“Shaw is obviously very pleased with the verdict, which we consider to be validation for the work Shaw conducted for those affected by Hurricane Katrina,” Shaw spokeswoman Gentry Brann said in a statement.
D’Amico said in his closing argument that since FEMA does not know how to build a trailer, it relied on Forest River to make a quality product, and that Forest River acknowledged that it does not build products for the long term, only for temporary housing.
As the trial opened two weeks ago, Judge Engelhardt told the jury which “undisputed facts” all parties agreed to be true. Among them was that FEMA had provided 143,000 travel trailers to Katrina refugees; that of those 143,000 Forest River manufactured 5,000 units; and that Forest River used only low formaldehyde emitting (LFE) wood in its travel trailers.
Formaldehyde is considered a known human carcinogen by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Government tests on FEMA trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana found formaldehyde levels to be on average about five times higher than those found in most homes.
Wright’s lawyers had asked that Wright be awarded $65,000 in future medical expenses and an unspecified amount for pain and suffering.
A third trial against FEMA-contracted travel trailer manufacturers is scheduled for May.