A group of Gulf Coast hurricane victims sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday for sheltering them in trailers that allegedly exposed them to dangerous fumes.
The complaint filed in federal court adds FEMA as a defendant in a batch of consolidated cases against several manufacturers that provided the agency with tens of thousands of trailers and mobile homes after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
The cases against trailer makers were consolidated in November 2007 and transferred to U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt in New Orleans.
However, FEMA couldn't be named as a defendant in the litigation until at least six months after a plaintiff had filed a claim against the agency.
Several plaintiffs from Louisiana have met that threshold, allowing FEMA to be named as a defendant in the consolidated litigation, according to one of the lead plaintiffs lawyer Gerald Meunier.
Meunier said FEMA already has been dismissed from similar federal lawsuits because that mandatory six-month waiting period hadn't expired yet. Including FEMA in the cases is an "essential step," he added.
"I don't think we can have any conversation ... about this controversy without the government's role in this being legally addressed," he said.
Many trailer occupants have blamed their illnesses on formaldehyde, a common preservative found in building materials. Formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
The plaintiffs accuse trailer makers of using shoddy materials and construction methods in a rush to fill FEMA's unprecedented demand for emergency housing after Katrina laid waste to tens of Gulf Coast homes in August 2005.
Recent government tests on hundreds of FEMA trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times higher than what people are exposed to in most modern homes.
FEMA spokesman James McIntyre declined to comment on the suit's allegations, but he said the agency has been "fully transparent" in responding to the formaldehyde concerns.
"Formaldehyde is an industry issue. It is not a FEMA issue," McIntyre said.
Nearly 100 residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama are named as plaintiffs in the cases against more than 60 trailer manufacturers. Their lawyers want Engelhardt to certify the cases as a class action.
The most common brand among FEMA's trailers, park models and mobile homes is Gulf Stream, followed by Forest River. Other models include Keystone, Pilgrim, Fleetwood and Fleetwood CA.
Meunier said hundreds if not thousands of trailer occupants have filed claims against FEMA over the formaldehyde concerns, but he doesn't know how many of those claims have exceeded the six-month waiting period.
"We don't know the count. FEMA won't tell us," he said.
Justice Department lawyers have been involved in the litigation even though FEMA wasn't a party in the litigation before Tuesday. Lawyers for the Justice Department and the trailer makers didn't immediately respond to calls for comment.
The Associated Press
March 19, 2008