Mississippi and Alabama residents cannot sue the U.S. government over emergency trailers that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided when Hurricane Katrina made thousands of homes uninhabitable, the 5th Circuit ruled.
Courthouse News Service reported that agreeing with the August 2010 decision of a federal judge, the federal appeals court said the plaintiffs, representing 10,000 residents, lack subject-matter jurisdiction to sue since FEMA provided the trailers at no cost to residents and under no obligation.
In 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes along the Gulf Coast. The Federal Emergency Management Agency contracted private businesses to immediately construct and provide thousands of travel trailers to give residents as temporary shelter until other housing became available.
FEMA trailers were available at no cost to residents for use as temporary emergency housing from September 2005 until May 2009. Applications for receiving the trailers notified residents that the units were intended for temporary use and that applicants were required to accept alternative housing options as they became available.
Seven months in, FEMA began receiving complaints from trailer occupants about formaldehyde odors inside the units. Formaldehyde is a chemical substance commonly found in construction materials such as plywood, particle board, home furnishing and fabrics. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies it as a probable human carcinogen.
FEMA notified these early complainants to ventilate the trailers by opening the doors and windows. In June 2006, FEMA prepared an informal brochure informing trailer occupants of the dangers of formaldehyde exposure, encouraging them to ventilate their units and urging them to seek medical help if they developed health problems related to formaldehyde.
It began working with the EPA on the issue in September 2006, with more than 200 occupants had complained to FEMA about formaldehyde by the end of the year. After lawsuits over the substance began accumulating, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated all the cases and assigned the matter to Louisiana’s Eastern District.
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