MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — Plaintiffs’ attorneys plan to appeal a judge’s dismissal of claims against the federal government by Mississippi storm victims who say they were exposed to dangerous fumes while living in FEMA trailers after Hurricane Katrina.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled last month that a Mississippi law shields the federal government from negligence liability for providing free shelter in response to a disaster.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers had argued that the government isn’t entitled to the same legal protections that a Mississippi law gives private individuals who provide shelter in response to emergencies, but Engelhardt disagreed.
Justin Woods, a lead plaintiffs’ attorney, said yesterday that they plan to ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review that ruling and a similar decision in May dismissing Louisiana residents’ claims against the federal government.
In a 19-page ruling on June 23, Engelhardt said plaintiffs’ attorneys couldn’t cite any law that says the Federal Emergency Management Agency was obligated to provide tens of thousands of free trailers to victims of the 2005 storm. The judge agreed with the government that FEMA “acted of its own volition” when it provided trailers to displaced residents.
“Even if the government undertook the task of assisting the public in an emergency (and had an agency to do so), that fact does not make its decision to undertake that task mandatory, or in other words, non-voluntary,” he wrote.
Woods said claims alleging “intentional misconduct” by FEMA remain intact.
“They’re not all dismissed at this point,” he said.
FEMA wasn’t a defendant in the first two trials over claims that FEMA trailers exposed residents to elevated levels of formaldehyde, a chemical that can cause breathing problems and has been classified as a carcinogen. Both juries rejecting plaintiffs’ claims that companies acted negligently in manufacturing and installing trailers.
Engelhardt also is reviewing claims against the federal government by Alabama and Texas storm victims, according to Woods.
“It appears as if it will be the same type of order, but we don’t have anything official yet,” he added.