NEW ORLEANS — A federal jury yesterday rejected a New Orleans man’s claims that government contractors provided him with a trailer after Hurricane Katrina that exposed him to dangerous fumes, dealing another blow to those suing the trailer makers.
Eight jurors unanimously decided that a trailer made by Forest River Inc. of Goshen, Ind., and occupied by Lyndon Wright, 39, after the August 2005 storm was not “unreasonably dangerous” in its construction or design.
The jury, which deliberated for less than three hours after hearing two weeks of testimony, also found that Shaw Environmental Inc. of Baton Rouge was not negligent in installing Wright’s trailer.
The case is the second of several “bellwether” trials designed to test the merits of and possibly resolve other claims over formaldehyde exposure in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers.
In September, a jury rejected similar claims about a FEMA trailer made by Gulf Stream Coach Inc. A third bellwether trial is scheduled for May.
Frank D’Amico Jr., one of Wright’s lawyers, said he was disappointed by the jury’s verdict but stressed that it doesn’t reflect the merits of other cases awaiting a trial date.
“It’s a verdict in this case alone,” he said. “We’re not seeing the whole picture.”
Forest River attorney Ernest Gieger said the verdict is “a victory for common sense.”
“Forest River makes an excellent product, and we believe the jury has vindicated that with this verdict,” he added.
“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.
FEMA, which provided tens of thousands of travel trailers to Katrina victims, wasn’t a defendant in Wright’s case.
Formaldehyde, a chemical commonly found in construction materials, can cause breathing problems and has been classified as a carcinogen. Government tests on hundreds of trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes.
D’Amico Jr. said in his closing argument that FEMA relied on Forest River to make a safe trailer and counted on Shaw to properly install it. But the companies “knew there was a problem, and they failed to take action,” he said.
“They want to blame everything on FEMA,” D’Amico said. “FEMA didn’t know how to make a trailer.”
Wright lived in a FEMA trailer outside his mother’s storm-damaged home for 27 months. He claims elevated levels of formaldehyde in his trailer caused his breathing problems, left him coughing up blood and stoked his cancer fears.
Gieger said Wright had a host of health problems before Katrina and didn’t spend much time in the trailer, since he worked long hours at two jobs after the storm.
“Whatever he suffers from today is not substantially associated with formaldehyde in that trailer,” Gieger said.
Wright claims his trailer shifted after Shaw installed it, but Shaw attorney Roy Cheatwood said the company properly installed the unit.
“It’s frankly offensive to suggest that Shaw didn’t care about the people in those homes,” Cheatwood said. “Shaw did its job.”
Wright’s lawyers had asked jurors to award him $65,000 for future medical expenses, plus an unspecified amount of money for pain and suffering, mental anguish, emotional distress and “loss or impairment of life’s pleasures.”