NEW ORLEANS (CN) – After deliberating for only four hours, a federal jury on Thursday rejected negligence charges against Fluor Enterprises and Gulf Stream Coach in the first FEMA trailer trial. Thirty thousand lawsuits have been filed alleging injuries from toxic levels of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Before the verdict, the plaintiffs’ attorneys called it “the most important trial in Louisiana this year.”
After the jury had deliberated for four hours, court was called at 4 p.m. for the verdict. The jury rejected all four of the plaintiffs’ claims, on the ninth day of the trial.
The jury found that the trailer where Alana Alexander and her son Chris Cooper lived was not “unreasonably dangerous” in construction or composition; it was not dangerous by design; Gulf Stream Coach was not guilty of failing to warn of the dangers of formaldehyde; and Fluor Enterprises was not guilty of negligence in distributing, installing and maintaining the trailer.
The jury consisted of five men and three women. Seven were white. Some live in mobile homes, but none lived in FEMA trailers.
Alexander said her son’s asthma was aggravated by high levels of formaldehyde in the Gulf Stream trailer where they lived 19 months.
Fluor Enterprises received a federal no-bid contract to install and maintain trailers after the 2005 hurricanes.
The federal government was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, but was not a defendant in the trial. But the United States, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is expected to be included as a defendant in trials to come.
In closing statements on Thursday, plaintiff counsel Mikal Watts said formaldehyde is a carcinogen, and Gulf Stream failed to use low formaldehyde-emitting wood (LFE) in its trailers. Watts said the government should not have had to make its own specifications for formaldehyde levels.
But Gulf Stream attorney Andrew Weinstock said Gulf Stream sold its FEMA trailers to the “most sophisticated purchaser in the world – the government” and relied on FEMA for formaldehyde standards. He said the International Agency for Research on Cancer is the only agency that considers formaldehyde a carcinogen, and that the chemical has been linked only to “very rare” nasopharyngeal cancer.
“This case is not about cancer,” Weinstock said. “They’ve tried everything they can to link it to cancer. … Do not compensate (Cooper) for that unknown. If, God forbid, he does get cancer, he’ll come back” and sue again.
Weinstock said no matter what the outcome, the trial was already a success because as a result Cooper finally got proper asthma medication.
Fluor attorney Charles Penot added: “People who do the suing have to do the proving.” He asked, “What did the plaintiffs bring? They didn’t bring much, so we didn’t say much.”
Penot added that the plaintiffs’ attorney, “Mr. Buzbee, told you this is the most important case to be tried in Louisiana this year. … Words are cheap. But verdicts are strong and they send messages.”
In his closing statement, plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee said again, “What you don’t know can hurt you.”
Buzbee spoke of his military service in Somalia, where he’d known there were snipers and felt it his duty to alert the innocent.
“Not to pass that information along would be criminal,” he said. At the very least, Alexander should have been told about formaldehyde in her trailer, Buzbee said. Testimony earlier this week indicated that Alexander was not warned that formaldehyde was toxic, and could leak from the trailer.
“As soon as she got the information, she got out,” Buzbee said.
Asking if the jury knows why they sent canaries into mines, Buzbee asked, “Does that make sense to you that a child is not as susceptible to formaldehyde?”
Under Louisiana law, since Fluor and Gulf Stream were tried as separate defendants, had the jury found either one guilty, the jury would apportion a percentage to each defendant.
Plaintiff counsel Mikal Watts suggested Gulf Stream Coach was 90 percent liable for damages to Alexander and Cooper, while Fluor was 10 percent liable.
The first claim of this kind was filed as a federal class action in May 2006. Eventually, class action status was denied and it was split into several smaller suits. U.S. District Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt presided after several case transfers.
Plaintiffs’ counsel Frank D’Amico said that area attorneys expect that as many as 75,000 trailer-formaldehyde product liability suits will be filed in all.
The Alexander’s trailer was made the year before most of the other Katrina and Rita trailers. It was from a 2004 batch.
Outside the Federal Courthouse on Thursday, the late September afternoon was lovely. Across the street, in Lafayette Square, the stage was set and people were flooding in to see a free performance from New Orleans soul legend Irma Thomas.