Friday, September 25, 2009

New Orleans family loses FEMA trailer suit

Posted By on Fri, Sep 25, 2009 at 1:42 AM

By Matt Robinson

After a two-week trial in federal court in New Orleans, the first manufacturer sued over formaldehyde in FEMA trailers was absolved of responsibility Thursday. An eight-member jury found Gulf Stream Coach, an Indiana company that made 50,000 trailers for FEMA’s emergency housing program after Hurricane Katrina, did not construct an unreasonably dangerous product, and Fluor, the FEMA contractor responsible for hauling and installing the unit, was not negligent in setting up the trailer that housed New Orleanians Alana Alexander and her two children.

After the verdict was read, Alexander and her son Christopher Cooper declined to comment on the proceedings and quietly left the courtroom alone.

Alexander and Cooper claimed the temporary housing unit FEMA provided them in 2006 was contaminated with formaldehyde that worsened Cooper’s asthma. The trailer, one of the ubiquitous Cavalier units built by Gulf Stream, was installed by Fluor in May 2006, and the family lived in the unit until December 2007. During that time, the suit alleged, the family suffered health consequences from the toxic exposure, particularly Cooper, who was 9 years old when they moved into the trailer. Christopher had been diagnosed with asthma at age 3; the suit alleges his condition got worse as a result of living in the trailer for 19 months.

Over the course of the trial, Alexander's attorney, Tony Buzbee, argued the formaldehyde-laden trailers were set up incorrectly, damaging them. The damage led to broken seals, loose ductwork and pressure differentials inside and outside the units, which affected ambient formaldehyde through heat and humidity, then circulated contaminated air inside the living space.

The defense team, headed by attorney Andy Weinstock, argued the trailers met all FEMA specifications when Gulf Stream sold them to the U.S. government. Alexander’s trailer tested 0.050 parts per million (ppm), or 50 parts per billion (ppb), a month after the family vacated the unit.

During the first week of testimony, the jury watched hours of videotaped testimony from Gulf Stream representatives, including Jim and Dan Shea, co-presidents of the company. Their testimony, along with that of Gulf Stream Vice President of Operations Scott Pullen and others, revealed that, although the manufacturer claimed to have a policy of using low-formaldehyde-emitting (LFE) processed wood in its products, up to 15 percent of the wood product purchased around the time Alexander’s trailer was constructed was regular, or “reg,” wood, which emits more formaldehyde than LFE. At the time, no limits or standards existed on the amount of formaldehyde permissible in travel trailers such as the one Alexander’s family inhabited, but the company claims it had an LFE policy its vendors should have followed. The lawsuit alleged Gulf Stream used “reg” wood for FEMA-spec units, and claimed that was the root of Cooper’s health problems.

In the videotaped testimony, Dan Shea admitted under questioning that even more of its wood could have had elevated levels of formaldehyde than the amount his brother and co-president Jim Shea had claimed. Dan Shea said only a third of the wood supplied by Weyerhauser and Samling was compliant with HUD codes for formaldehyde emissions, and he conceded that “probably two-thirds or more” of Gulf Stream’s wood from those two manufacturers violated HUD certification standards.

Other videotaped testimony included Dr. Christopher DeRosa, a researcher for the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), who testified regarding occupants’ potential exposure to formaldehyde. DeRosa was demoted when he challenged a study by the ATSDR, a sister agency of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In his testimony, during which he became emotional at times, DeRosa recalled that “kids were presenting with clinical signs of formaldehyde toxicity,” with symptoms including asthma attacks, in Katrina-affected regions, but were “being returned to the environment which caused [the symptoms],” namely the trailers he suspected of being the source of the toxin.

Before Hurricane Katrina, Cooper’s asthma had been improving, according to the live testimony of Dr. Janet Barnes, the boy’s pediatrician, whose office in eastern New Orleans was inundated with 6 feet of water when the levees failed after the hurricane. Her records were destroyed, but she remembered much about the young man because he had been Barnes’ patient since 2000. She examined Cooper in April 2008, four months after the family moved out of the trailer, and diagnosed him with allergic conjunctivitis. His asthma, however, was improving: “His lung fields were clear,” Barnes testified, “but his eyes were involved. … He had dark circles under his eyes.” She noted that symptom often correlates with chronic exposure to irritants.

Dr. Karen Pacheco, who examined Cooper in 2009, found the young man may have suffered from “suboptimal” treatment of his asthma prior to Hurricane Katrina. Because Cooper’s medical records from before Aug. 29, 2005 were destroyed by flooding, however, her opinion could not be verified. Cooper reported other symptoms related to asthma and allergic responses at the time, and in videotaped testimony Pacheco said, “In my opinion, his symptoms were due to formaldehyde.”

The defense did not challenge whether Cooper had asthma, or that his condition worsened while in the trailer. But defense attorney Andy Weinstock, who represented Gulf Stream, argued the boy’s asthma had been “suboptimally treated” before and after Katrina and as a result, any problems with his health were due to an improper medicine regime, not exposure to formaldehyde.

Defense witnesses challenged opinions expressed by Alexander’s witnesses, who had attested to improper installation of the unit and had testified that the levels of formaldehyde in the family’s trailer were high enough to cause concern. But Weinstock countered that the 0.050 ppm formaldehyde in the trailer was well below levels believed to cause harm. HUD’s standard of 0.4 ppm for manufactured housing is eight times as high as the level measured in Alexander’s trailer; other recommended limits of exposure range from as low as 0.008 ppm to as high as 3.0 ppm.

“Some of [the jurors] live in mobile homes,” Weinstock said after the trial, “and they understood the argument that the level in the Alexander trailer was not unreasonably high.”

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Charity Baby!

Posted By on Tue, Sep 1, 2009 at 6:23 AM

Over 1,000 people paraded Monday for the resurrection of their beloved Charity Hospital. Although someone did lean over at one point and say to me, “those second liners will follow the brass bands off the plank of a ship!” HA! And you know it’s true! But it’s also true that New Orleanians love them some Charity Hospital.

Organizer’s of the Save Charity Campaign say that rebuilding Charity would take less time, less money and is less destructive than leveling Lower Midcity to build a parking lot for LSU’s midlife-crisis Hummer of a hospital complex. And I believe them. Times are hard and they wanna spend tax dollars like it grows on trees when there’s a perfectly good building right there on Tulane and Perdido that can be restored. Phft. We’ll see what happens with that arbitration over the extra 300 mil LSU wants FEMA to pay to cover their documented post-storm neglect of the Charity building. I predict judgment coming down on the side of HELL NAW!

Now if you didn’t make Monday’s rally, you can get a taste of what you missed by checking out these vids. I’ll also throw in the City Council form letter the organizers passed out so you can get in on the action.

New Orleans City Council,

I want you to:

____ Order an Independent Cost-benefit Analysis of the two plans for new hospitals

____ Hold Public hearings

____ Include the hospitals in the city’s Master Plan

Name ________________________________

Address ______________________________

Oh yeah – and I VOTE _____

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

You're invited to Veronica White's booksigning tomorrow

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2009 at 2:15 PM


It's $35, but Amazon has a used copy for $26.99.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Vitter drops objection to FEMA director nominee

Posted By on Tue, May 12, 2009 at 5:10 PM

After a week of bipartisan criticism from the White House, some fellow GOP senators, and withering editorials in several national newspapers, Sen. David Vitter has formally dropped his hold on the nomination of Craig Fugate as the new director of FEMA. As The Washington Post reports:

"Louisianans have gotten way too many easy spoken assurances from FEMA over the last four years that didn't mean anything," Vitter said in a statement this morning. "Now that I've secured a specific written commitment from them on the V-Zone issue, we can move forward." He said he is "very confident" the issue will be resolved soon.

Last week the White House and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) called on Vitter to lift his objections to Fugate -- especially since the 2009 hurricane season begins June 1 -- suggesting his delay tactics were inspired more by politics than home state concerns. The criticism grew last week when the senator sent an e-mail to supporters explaining that his continued opposition "isn't about politics." Opponents noted however that a link in the e-mail led to a financial donation page on Vitter's 2010 reelection campaign Web site. In response, Senate Democrats yesterday released a Web-only video slamming Vitter's continued opposition.

The New York Times, in a Sunday editorial, had opined "But we suspect that Senator Vitter is more preoccupied with the approach of re-election season than any weather events. He is clearly relishing doing battle with the administration, issuing broadsides styling himself as a populist standing up to “strong arm” tactics of the White House." Gambit's own commentary this week concluded: "Sen. Vitter needs to stop posturing and do what's right for his constituents, the Gulf Coast and the country. Craig Fugate's record of accomplishment is beyond reproach, and he has support from leaders across the political spectrum. Hurricane season is less than one month away. Louisiana needs a FEMA director in place, and we need one now."

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