$42.6 million FEMA trailer settlements approved
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal judge gave his final approval Thursday to a $42.6 million class-action settlement between companies that made and installed government-issued trailers after hurricanes in 2005 and Gulf Coast storm victims who claim they were exposed to hazardous fumes while living in the shelters.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled from the bench after hearing from attorneys who brokered a deal resolving nearly all remaining court claims over elevated levels of formaldehyde in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Roughly 55,000 residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas will be eligible for shares of $37.5 million paid by more than two dozen manufacturers. They also can get shares of a separate $5.1 million settlement with FEMA contractors that installed and maintained the units.
Gerald Meunier, a lead plaintiffs' attorney, said the deal provides residents with "somewhat modest" compensation but allows both sides to avoid the expense and risks of protracted litigation.
"Dollar amounts alone do not determine whether a settlement is fair and reasonable," he said.
Jim Percy, a lawyer for the trailer makers, said Engelhardt would have had to try cases individually or transfer suits to other jurisdictions if the settlement wasn't reached.
"It was not going to end quickly, and it was going to be even more monumental for all the parties concerned," he said.
Formaldehyde, a chemical commonly found in building materials, can cause breathing problems and is 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.
FEMA isn't a party to the settlements and had downplayed formaldehyde risks for months before those test results were announced in February 2008. As early as 2006, trailer occupants began reporting headaches, nosebleeds and difficulty breathing.
Only three plaintiffs have opted out of the settlement with the trailer makers. Engelhardt opened the floor to objections during Thursday's hearing, but nobody spoke up. The judge said he didn't receive any formal, written objections, either.
But that doesn't mean the deal isn't a disappointment for many residents who blame their illnesses on the cramped trailers they occupied for months on end.
"We were told not to look for much," said Anthony Dixon, a New Orleans resident who says he developed asthma while living in a FEMA trailer for two years.
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