A federal appeals court has ruled that residents of Mississippi and Alabama cannot sue the federal government for providing dangerous trailers to live in during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. According to a recent report by the Courthouse News Service, the Mississippi and Alabama residents affected by FEMA’s formaldehyde trailers are left without a remedy. Plaintiffs, who represented some 10,000 residents, filed suit back in 2008 after suffering injuries as a result of the toxic trailers.
The story begins like this: In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the gulf coast. Soon after the disaster, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, contracted with private construction companies to build trailers to provide displaced residents with temporary housing. The trailers were provided to the residents free of charge and they were used from 2005 until 2009. After a few months, trailer occupants began complaining that the trailers smelled of formaldehyde, a chemical substance commonly used in construction materials. FEMA responded by telling residents to ventilate their trailers. It also gave residents a pamphlet warning of the dangers associated with exposure to formaldehyde and encouraged those having problems to seek immediate medical attention.
After the court consolidated all of the complaints, the plaintiffs argued that they were harmed by FEMA because FEMA provided them with trailers that it knew contained formaldehyde and failed to warn them of the dangers associated with it. The complaint also alleged that FEMA failed to respond to the residents’ concerns in a timely manner in an attempt to avoid litigation.
The trial court dismissed the suit on summary judgment finding that both Mississippi and Alabama law would prevent suit against a private person if the circumstances were the same. The plaintiffs attempted to appeal the decision, but the appeals court agreed with the trial court’s decision. Mississippi and Alabama law applied because the government’s conduct occurred in those states. The appeals court found the following: “Because the Mississippi and Alabama emergency statutes abrogate the tort liability of a private person who, (1) voluntarily, (2) without compensation, (3) allows his property or premises to be used as shelter during or in recovery from a natural disaster, the government’s voluntary, cost-free provision of the EHUs [Emergency Housing Units] to disaster victims, in connection with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, is also immunized conduct under the statute… The government’s provision of the government-owned EHUs, as implemented by FEMA, was voluntary because it was under no contractual or legal obligation, under the Stafford Act or other federal legislation, to provide the EHUs to disaster victims in response to the disasters.”
Because the government’s voluntary action was the basis of the ruling, the appeals court refused to consider the plaintiff’s other issues. As it stands now it is unlikely that the Mississippi and Alabama residents injured by FEMA’s formaldehyde trailers will be able to recover for the terrible injuries they suffered. If you or someone you know has questions regarding personal injury issues, please call the experienced Mississippi personal injury attorneys at Kilpatrick & Philley, PLLC, at (601) 856-7800.
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