Court of Appeals Affirms Dismissal of FEMA Trailer Claims

The Fifth Circuit recently upheld the dismissal of putative class actions filed by Mississippi and Alabama residents against the federal government alleging trailers provided to Hurricane Katrina-impacted citizens contained hazardous levels of formaldehyde. See In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation (Mississippi Plaintiffs), No. 10-30921, and In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation (Alabama Plaintiffs), No. 10-30945 (5th Cir. 2012).

Plaintiffs-Appellants brought this Federal Tort Claims Act action against the United States for injuries allegedly related to their exposure to elevated levels of formaldehyde contained in the component materials of the Emergency Housing Units (“EHUs”) provided to them by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Readers will recall we have posted about various aspects of this litigation before. In October 2007, the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation created MDL No. 07-1873 (In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation), and assigned the complex litigation to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

The key facts: After the hurricanes, FEMA activated its Individual and Household Assistance Program and, from September 2005 through May 1, 2009, the agency supplied disaster victims with EHUs, at no cost, to use as temporary shelter. The EHUs were taken from FEMA’s preexisting inventory, which had been purchased from public retailers as well as directly from manufacturers. The EHUs were small, portable, and usually placed at the disaster victims’ home sites. The trailers were installed by government contractors who placed the units on blocks or piers, anchored them to the ground using straps or bolts, and connected them to public sewer and water lines.

In March 2006, when FEMA began receiving formaldehyde-related complaints, it encouraged shelter occupants to ventilate their EHUs by opening the doors and windows. In June 2006, FEMA prepared an informational brochure informing EHU occupants of the potential risks of formaldehyde exposure, encouraging them to ventilate their units, and urging them to seek medical help if they developed health problems related to formaldehyde. In September 2006, FEMA began working with the Environmental Protection Agency to test the EHUs for formaldehyde, and also developed various new mitigation techniques.  In July 2007, FEMA distributed another informational brochure to EHU occupants, set up a hotline and a dedicated call center to field formaldehyde complaints from occupants, and continued to assist occupants in locating alternative housing. FEMA subsequently entered into an agreement with the CDC to conduct additional testing, the findings of which were compiled in a third informational brochure and distributed to EHU occupants in early 2008.

The federal government filed various motions to dismiss the claims against it, or in the alternative for summary judgment, based on the FTCA’s discretionary function exception.The district court denied the motions and held that the FTCA’s discretionary function exception might not apply to some or all of appellants’ claims, the determination of which would be driven by the facts of each individual case.  The district court then denied class certification and scheduled a series of bellwether trials in the MDL, but none of the FTCA claims brought by the bellwether plaintiffs against the Government advanced to the trial stage.

The Government then moved under Federal Rule 12(b)(1) to dismiss Appellants’ FTCA claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction on the grounds that no analogous private liability existed under the Mississippi and Alabama emergency statutes.  The district court granted the Government’s motion and dismissed appellants’ FTCA claims. Plaintiffs appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

 A plaintiff may only sue the United States if a federal statute explicitly provides for a waiver of sovereign immunity. The United States must consent to be sued, and that consent is a prerequisite to federal jurisdiction. Delta Commercial Fisheries Ass’n v. Gulf of Mex. Fishery Mgmt. Council, 364 F.3d 269, 273 (5th Cir. 2004). Waivers of sovereign immunity are narrowly construed in favor of the United States. In re Supreme Beef Processors, Inc., 468 F.3d 248, 253 (5th Cir. 2006). The FTCA is recognized as providing a waiver of sovereign immunity and provides the sole basis of recovery for tort claims against the United States. See 28 U.S.C. § 1346 and § 2671, et seq.; In re Supreme Beef Processors, 468 F.3d at 252 n.4. But the Act provides that the United States shall be liable in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances. See
28 U.S.C. § 2674.

The "same manner" analysis is a mix of federal and state law. The FTCA requires the  Government's liability to be measured in accordance with the law of the state where the alleged act or omission occurred, so here the Appellants’ FTCA claims were limited by the relevant provisions set forth in Mississippi and Alabama tort law. See 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1); Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 11-14 (1962); Cleveland ex rel. Cleveland v. United States, 457 F.3d 397, 403 (5th Cir. 2006). Whether a private person in “like circumstances” would be subject to liability is also a question of sovereign immunity and, thus, is ultimately a question of federal law. See United States v. Olson, 546 U.S. 43, 44 (2005). Because the federal government could never be exactly like a private actor, a court’s job in applying the standard is to find the most reasonable analogy. LaBarge v. Cnty. of Mariposa, 798 F.2d 364, 366-69 (9th Cir. 1986). Inherent differences between the government and a private person cannot be allowed to disrupt this analysis. The Fifth Circuit has consistently held that the government is entitled to raise any and all defenses that would potentially be available to a private citizen or entity under state law. Camacho v. Tex. Workforce Comm'n, 445 F.3d 407, 410 (5th Cir. 2006). Therefore, if a private person under “like circumstances” would be shielded from liability pursuant to a state statute, lower courts must decline to exercise subject matter jurisdiction in a case like this.

Because, here, 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 to disaster victims, in connection with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, was
also immunized conduct under the statute.  Despite plaintiffs' arguments, 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 any federal legislation, to provide the EHUs to disaster victims in response to the disasters. The Government did not receive compensation from the disaster victims in exchange for letting them use the EHUs. (The collection of taxes by the Government was not comparable to the traditional quid pro quo compensation contemplated by the statute.) In addition, the Government’s actions relating to the EHUs fell within the time frame contemplated by the statute as “during or in recovery from” a major disaster, since FEMA’s temporary emergency housing program ran from the hurricanes up to May, 2009.

Because Mississippi and Alabama emergency laws would protect those private individuals who shelter natural disaster victims from tort liability, the federal government's voluntary provision of the trailers was likewise immunized, the court concluded.

As an alternative, the appellants asked the Fifth Circuit to certify questions to the state supreme courts of Alabama and Mississippi regarding the meaning of the state emergency statutes, but the appeals court agreed with the district court that these questions did not warrant certification. Dismissals affirmed.

Dismissal of Bellwether Case in FEMA MDL Upheld

The plaintiff who at one time had been the first-in-line bellwether plaintiff in the FEMA Trailer MDL has lost her appeal of the dismissal of her claims. In Re: Fema Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation (Alana Alexander, plaintiff), No. 10-30451(5th Cir. June 24, 2011).

Plaintiffs sued the government, alleging exposure to potentially dangerous, high levels of formaldehyde in their Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided emergency housing unit. Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA provided EHUs to the displaced victims of the storms. The hurricanes’ destruction created an urgent and immediate need for an unprecedented number of EHUs. In response, FEMA purchased more than 140,000 new EHUs from manufacturers and dealers. Alexander and her children were among the Louisiana residents who received an EHU. The Alexander family moved into their EHU in May 2006 and almost immediately noticed a “chemical smell” in the unit that caused the children's asthma to worsen. Other physical manifestations allegedly  included  irritation, burning, and tearing of the eyes; irritation and burning of nasal membranes; eczema; headaches; difficulty breathing; wheezing; shortness of breath; and new allergies and worsening allergies.

Alexander admitted that she knew the smell came from the EHU. Shortly after moving in, Alexander claimed, she asked an unidentified Government representative or contractor about  the smell. She claimed that he told her that that the smell was “nothing to worry about.”

In July, 2008, Alexander submitted an administrative claim with FEMA and in early 2009 filed a complaint in the district court, alleging under the Federal Tort Claims Act that the Government was careless, reckless, grossly negligent, and acted with deliberate indifference by failing to disclose the exposure to potentially dangerous and high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers.

Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint as untimely (in cases where the government has waived sovereign immunity, the statute of limitations issue is jurisdictional). Although the FTCA does not define when a claim accrues, it is well-settled that a tort action under the FTCA accrues when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the alleged injury that is the basis of the action. The trial court dismissed the case, and plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, Alexander argued that the accrual of her claim was delayed or tolled pursuant to either: (1) the discovery rule, (2) equitable estoppel, or (3) the continuing tort doctrine. The 5th Circuit found these arguments were without merit.

There was no dispute that Alexander was aware of the injuries by May 2006. When the family moved into the trailer in May 2006, almost immediately, the asthma worsened, and the kids
experienced a plethora of other health issues. The primary dispute was thus whether  Alexander knew or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have discovered the cause of the  injuries such that her claim accrued at that time.

Plaintiff claimed she did not discover the Government’s role in the alleged injuries until July 2007, when FEMA issued its second round of flyers about formaldehyde emissions in the EHUs. This argument was "not convincing."  The court of appeals held that plaintiff had enough information regarding the injury and its cause by May 2006 that would lead a reasonable person in plaintiff's  position to further investigate the specific cause of that injury. All the facts were not in the control of the putative defendant, unavailable to the plaintiff or at least very difficult to obtain. Plaintiff could have established FEMA’s connection to the EHU, from which the “chemical smell” was emanating.

Second, plaintiff argued that because she reasonably relied on the claims of the representative that there was “nothing to worry about,” the limitations period should be equitably tolled. Because the limitations periods in statutes waiving sovereign immunity are jurisdictional, the district court properly held that equitable tolling did not apply to this case. 

Finally, Plaintiff could not cite any Fifth Circuit case law indicating that accrual should be delayed when the plaintiff knows about the injury and could have discovered, with a reasonable inquiry, the putative defendant’s, here the Government’s, potential liability. The court thus declined the invitation to apply the continuing tort doctrine to the facts presented in this case.

Partial Settlement Proposed in FEMA Trailer Litigation

Defendants and certain plaintiffs in the FEMA TRAILER FORMALDEHYDE PRODUCTS
LIABILITY LITIGATION, MDL NO. 07-1873(E.D. La.) have filed a joint motion seeking approval of a partial settlement of the litigation.

Readers may recall from our previous posts that plaintiffs had filed claims against the United States and several manufacturers alleging that they were exposed to high levels of formaldehyde contained in emergency housing provided to them by FEMA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The plaintiffs proposed litigating the claims in six subclasses, including four subclasses for residents divided by state (Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and Mississippi), a medical monitoring (“future medical services”) subclass, and an economic loss subclass.  The court denied the personal injury class, and then the medical monitoring class.   The court then adopted a bellwether trial approach.  We posted on the federal jury in Louisiana returning a defense verdict in just such a bellwether plaintiffs' suit over alleged exposure to formaldehyde fumes while living for several months in a FEMA-provided trailer.  Indeed, all three bellwether trials have resulted in losses for plaintiffs. There are currently two appeals pending from previous bellwether trial verdicts. The MDL court also found last year that FEMA itself could not be held liable for the alleged formaldehyde in the trailers.
 

Now, several maker of the emergency mobile homes used after hurricanes Katrina and Rita have agreed to pay approximately $2.6 million to settle certain claims that plaintiffs were allegedly sickened by levels of formaldehyde in the homes.  The proposed settlement covers FEMA mobile homes issued to victims of the hurricanes, not the travel trailers, which actually formed the majority of emergency housing made available after the hurricanes. 

Under the proposed settlement, a whopping 48% of that total will be set aside for plaintiff attorneys' fees.  According to the settlement agreement, the size of the potential settlement class is more than 1,000.  In addition to the trial results, the joint motion makes reference to the MDL court ruling that precluded plaintiffs from arguing for liability under varied (and higher) state standards, rather than a uniform federal level.

Dismissal of FEMA Trailer MDL Bellwether Plaintiff Affirmed

With the recognition by many courts of the inappropriateness of the use of the class action device for personal injury claims, the use of other methods to manage mass torts has emerged.  One approach frequently seen within MDLs is the bellwether trial.  Only a proportion of the cases are selected for case specific discovery; only a fraction of them go into a trial pool; and only a percentage of them are selected for trial, to serve as bellwethers for the remaining cases. The hope is that the trial-selected cases provide sufficient information, about claims and defenses, and case values, to inform and propel the disposition of the remaining cases. Such trials may force plaintiffs' counsel to prepare their standard trial package, and the trials may give some sense of how sound that package is. The bellwether trials may give the court a context to resolve legal questions that arise at a trial as witnesses begin to take the stand. Bellwether trials may test the expert witnesses and theories, and give both parties a sense of how much it costs to try a case to verdict. In theory, test trials are to produce valuable information that will allow the parties to assess the strength and settlement value of all the related cases. Accordingly, which cases go first, from among the hundreds or thousands in the mass tort can be extremely significant.

The process for selection of the bellwether cases is crucial.  If plaintiffs are permitted to handpick their best cases to go first, the process works only if plaintiffs lose their best cases; if they win their best cases, that comes as no surprise to anyone.  Ideally the court would pick truly representative cases. 

A significant, although less well recognized issue, is what happens when a bellwether plaintiff cannot or will not go to trial.  Plaintiffs often adopt this tactic to replace a plaintiff whose claim turns out to be, after discovery, not as strong as originally expected.  In the FEMA trailer formaldehyde MDL, the Fifth Circuit recently confirmed that plaintiffs cannot play fast and loose with the procedure, dropping plaintiffs from the line for trial without some sanction. The court of appeals refused to resuscitate a bellwether claim that was dismissed with prejudice after the plaintiff said he could not go forward with trial. In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litig., No. 09-31131 (5th Cir. 12/14/10).

Raymond Bell and his mother, like thousands of other plaintiffs, filed suit against multiple defendants who participated in the government’s program to supply temporary housing for victims of the devastating 2005 hurricanes. These cases were assigned by the Multi-District Litigation Panel for pretrial management by Judge Engelhardt in New Orleans. The MDL court set dates in 2009 and 2010 for four bellwether cases, each to be prosecuted by a plaintiff against one of the four trailer manufacturers estimated to have the most units at issue in the suits. The case of Diana Bell, Raymond’s mother, was identified as the bellwether case against Keystone RV, manufacturer of the trailer in which her family had lived.  Diana then dropped out, and voluntarily dismissed her case with prejudice. After consulting with counsel, the court promptly selected Raymond Bell as the next bellwether plaintiff in order to maintain the benefit of trial preparation concerning the particular trailer they both had lived in. The next Bell, however, also moved to substitute a new bellwether plaintiff or obtain a continuance of the 2010 trial date.

He made three arguments in support of this dual motion. He asserted he could not take two weeks off from his job to attend trial;  he could not afford to forego at least one week of income; and the trial dates would interfere with his participation in Community College classes at the beginning of the spring semester.

The trial court concluded that Raymond Bell really did not want to go to trial. He moved for a dismissal without prejudice and attached an affidavit asserting as fact the arguments noted above. He expressed doubt about the curative impact of the judge’s proposed instruction if he were to be absent from part of the trial.  The MDL court noted that plaintiffs’ counsel should take notice that all plaintiffs who assert claims in an MDL have to be ready and willing to serve as bellwether plaintiffs, if called upon to do so. The claims of those plaintiffs who refuse to do so, when called upon, will be dismissed with prejudice.

The reasoning was that the parties had expended much time, effort, and money into readying the case involving the Bell trailer for trial. Based on the decisions of the plaintiffs, all the pre-trial work and discovery relating to the Bell trailer was rendered utterly useless. All of the resources spent in preparing this case for trial had been wasted. Because the parties had to choose another bellwether plaintiff, which will involve conducting discovery on an entirely different trailer and readying a completely different case for trial, the claims of Mr. Bell, like those of Mrs. Bell, should be dismissed with prejudice.   Not doing so would possibly cause other bellwether plaintiffs to “jump ship” at the last minute; this is obviously a tactic that any MDL court does not wish to encourage.

On appeal the Fifth Circuit found that it was not hard to justify the court’s decision to deny the plaintiff's alternative motions. Raymond Bell’s attempt to withdraw as plaintiff or to continue seemed contrived, especially in light of his mother’s less than diligent prosecution of a claim bearing on the same trailer. Nothing in his motion papers distinguished Bell’s inconvenience in going forward with trial from the inconvenience that any plaintiff may suffer from having to try the case he has filed. The case had been pending for months, the parties had been actively preparing for trial.

Plain legal prejudice would have accrued to defendants from an unconditional dismissal of Raymond Bell’s case without prejudice. The court would have to realign Keystone RV with a new bellwether plaintiff who resided in a different trailer and whose suit would almost surely add a different group of subsidiary defendants. Not only would Bell be able to refile his suit, but the appellees were in no way spared the continuing costs of legal defense. Defendants'  investment in trial preparation for Bell’s case was wasted. Moreover, other plaintiffs in the FEMA trailer formaldehyde litigation were disadvantaged by the tactics employed on Bell’s behalf as they were delayed in acquiring trial information important for their cases. The size and scope of this multiparty litigation inescapably heightened the prejudice from Bell’s motion to dismiss.

Bottom line is that Bell wanted to have his cake and eat it too by withdrawing from a bellwether
trial and then sitting back to await the outcome of another plaintiff’s experience against the appellees. When a plaintiff files any court case, however, sitting back is no option. He must be prepared to undergo the costs, psychological, economic and otherwise, that litigation entails. That the plaintiff becomes one of a mass of thousands pursuing particular defendants lends urgency to this reality. Courts must be exceedingly wary of mass litigation in which plaintiffs are unwilling to move their cases to trial. Any individual case may be selected as a bellwether, and no plaintiff has the right to avoid the obligation to proceed with his own suit, if so selected.

 

 

Proposed CFA Class Action on Bath Products Is Dismissed

A federal court has dismissed a putative class action accusing Johnson & Johnson Consumer Co. Inc., L'Oreal USA Inc., Kimberly-Clark Corp., and other defendants, of selling children's bath products that contain toxic and carcinogenic substances. See Herrington v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Co. Inc., et al., No. 09-cv-01597 (N.D. Calif. 9/1/10).

Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that the defendants failed to disclose that their products contain probable carcinogens, other unsafe contaminants, and/or ingredients that have not been shown to be safe. Plaintiffs further contended that defendants deceived consumers by affirmatively misrepresenting the safety of their products.  Plaintiffs averred that they purchased the products for use on their young children, and contended that, had defendants disclosed the contaminants in their children’s products and the fact that all ingredients were not "proven safe," they would not
have purchased the products at all.

To evidence the alleged hazards, plaintiffs cited a press release and a report entitled “No More Toxic Tub,” both of which were published by an extremist anti-business group, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. In the report, the Campaign points to trace amounts of chemicals such as formaldehyde allegedly in defendants’ products.

They sued for alleged violations of California’s false advertising statute, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500, et seq.; California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200, et seq.; and California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1750, et seq.; and
various other state unfair and deceptive trade practices acts, as well as making common law claims for misrepresentation; fraud; and breach of warranties.  Plaintiffs noted they intended to move for certification of a nationwide class and various subclasses.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss.  They first argued that plaintiffs did not have standing to sue
because they cannot show that they have suffered a concrete, actual injury-in-fact. Plaintiffs responded that they pleaded two injuries sufficient to confer standing: “(1) risk of harm to their children resulting from their exposure to carcinogenic baby bath products; and (2) economic harm resulting from the purchase of these contaminated, defective bath products.”

The court rejected this plaintiff argument, noting that plaintiffs did not cite controlling authority that the “risk of harm” injury employed to establish standing in traditional environmental cases in some states applies equally to what is, at base, a product liability action. To the extent that an increased risk of harm could constitute an injury-in-fact in a product liability case such as this one, in any event, plaintiffs would have to at lease plead a credible or substantial threat to their health or that of their children to establish their standing to bring suit.  But plaintiffs did not allege such a threat. They made general statements about the alleged toxicity of various chemicals, but did not allege that the amounts of the substances allegedly in defendants’ products have caused harm or create a credible or substantial risk of harm.  {Fundamental principle of toxicology - dose matters.}  Plaintiffs did not plead facts sufficient to show that a palpable risk exists. In fact, plaintiffs' own pleading noted that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has stated that, although the presence of certain chemicals “is cause for concern,” the CPSC is merely continuing “to monitor its use in consumer products.”  Seemed a far cry from substantial risk.

The court found this case analogous to Koronthaly v. L’Oreal USA, Inc., 2008 WL 2938045 (D.N.J.), aff’d, 2010 WL 1169958 (3d Cir. 2010), which we posted on before, and which was dismissed on standing grounds. There, the plaintiff was a regular user of the defendants’ lipstick, which, according to another report by the same Campaign group, contained lead.  The plaintiff alleged that she had been injured “by mere exposure to lead-containing lipstick and by her increased risk of being poisoned by lead.”  However, she did not complain of any current injuries. The district court concluded, and the Third Circuit affirmed, that the plaintiff’s allegations of future injury
were “too remote and abstract to qualify as a concrete and particularized injury.” Id. at *5.

The court here also held that the various counts failed to state a claim. For example the fraud-related claims failed to plead, as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b), “the who, what, when, where, and how of the alleged fraud.” See Vess v. Ciba-Geigy Corp. USA, 317 F.3d 1097, 1106 (9th Cir. 2003).  While plaintiffs tried to argue that their consumer fraud act claims are different from common law fraud, the Ninth Circuit has held that Rule 9(b) applied to a plaintiff’s claims under the CLRA and UCL when they were grounded in fraud.  Also, plaintiffs did not not plead the circumstances in which they were exposed to the alleged false statements. Nor did they plead which of these alleged misrepresentations they relied on in making their purchase of products.  Again, plaintiffs cited In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal. 4th 298 (2009), to argue that they were not required to allege which representations they specifically saw. That case was factually distinguishable on many grounds.  And, in any event, to the extent In re Tobacco II provides that to establish UCL standing, reliance need not be proved through exposure to particular advertisements under some unique factual circumstance, the case does not stand for, nor could it stand for, a general relaxation of the pleading requirements under Federal Rule 9(b).

Similarly, plaintiffs made the general allegation that defendants engaged in unfair business acts or practices but did not allege facts suggesting that consumers have suffered an injury based on the defendants’ alleged conduct. Thus, for the same reasons they lacked Article III standing, they failed to state a claim for those types of claims as well. 

The court gave plaintiffs leave to try to file an amended complaint.

 

EPA Releases Draft Toxicology Assessment of Formaldehyde

The Environmental Protection Agency has released a draft toxicological review of formaldehyde, entitled "Toxicological Review of Formaldehyde Inhalation Assessment: In Support of Summary Information on the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS).''  (EPA's IRIS is a human health assessment program that evaluates quantitative and qualitative risk information on effects that may result from exposure to chemical substances found in the environment. )

EPA announced a 90-day public comment period and a public listening session for the external review draft human health assessment.  The draft assessment was prepared by the National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) within the EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD). EPA said it was releasing this draft assessment for the purpose of pre-dissemination peer review.  Also, a committee of the National Research Council, acting under the auspices of National Academy of Sciences (NAS), will conduct an independent scientific peer review of the EPA draft human health assessment of formaldehyde. The peer review committee will hold meetings, some of which may involve public sessions. Public sessions will be announced before each meeting on the National Academies Web site.  The public comment period and NAS scientific peer review are separate processes that are supposed to provide opportunities for all interested parties to comment on the assessment.

Formaldehyde is present in a wide variety of products including some plywood adhesives, abrasive materials, insulation, insecticides and embalming fluids. The major sources of anthropogenic emissions of formaldehyde are motor vehicle exhaust, power plants, manufacturing plants that produce or use formaldehyde or substances that contain it (i.e. glues), petroleum refineries, coking operations, incinerating, wood burning, and tobacco smoke, says the EPA.  It is used in industry to manufacture building materials and numerous household products and consumer products, including some soaps, shampoos, and shaving cream. 

Of course, alleged exposure to formaldehyde has been involved in numerous toxic tort suits as well as consumer fraud actions.

The draft assessment found that formaldehyde could be more likely to cause cancer than in previous EPA calculations. In the draft, EPA now estimates there could be up to one case of cancer for every 1,000 people breathing formaldehyde at concentrations of 20 parts per billion over their lifetime.  The draft assessment also provides for the first time an agency estimate of a reference concentration (RfC). Lifelong inhalation of formaldehyde at concentrations up to that RfC would not be expected to cause breathing, immune, reproductive, and other non-cancer health effects.

At Section 4.5.4, the report concludes that human epidemiological evidence is sufficient to conclude there is a causal association between formaldehyde exposure and nasopharyngeal cancer, nasal and paranasal cancer, all leukemias, myeloid leukemia and lymphohematopoietic cancers as a group. But, for example, it is questionable whether there really is a demonstrable link between formaldehyde and leukemia.  And the evidence does not appear to support a causal link between formaldehyde and  upper-respiratory tract cancers. See the critical comments of other federal agencies.

Any regulatory decision on this important chemical based on incomplete information could cause significant harm to the economy, as many products critical to the home and commercial building, automotive and aerospace industries, as well as defense-related applications and vaccines used worldwide to prevent polio, cholera, diphtheria, and other major diseases, all use it.  All living things — including people — produce and process formaldehyde. It occurs naturally in the air we breathe and does not accumulate in the environment or in plants, animals or people.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) has stated that the draft report is another reason to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act.  He plans to introduce such a bill this Summer. Also, legislation that would amend TSCA to set formaldehyde emissions limits for plywood and other composite wood products was reported out last month by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  See H.R. 4805, The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act.

Update: and an alert reader points out that the Senate just this week passed its own version, S.1660, the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act.  The Senate bill would make the formaldehyde emission standard contained in the California Code of Regulations (relating to an airborne toxic control measure to reduce formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products, as in effect on July 28, 2009) applicable to certain hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and particleboard sold, supplied, offered for sale, or manufactured in the United States, with certain exemptions, including for composite wood products used inside new vehicles, rail cars, boats, aerospace craft, or aircraft.

Jury Returns Defense Verdict in FEMA Trailer Trial

Last week a federal jury in Louisiana returned a defense verdict in a plaintiffs' suit over alleged exposure to formaldehyde fumes while living for several months in a FEMA-provided trailer. In Re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation, Age v. Gulf Stream Coach Inc., No. 09-02892, E.D. La.). The government had made the trailer available after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the plaintiffs' home in 2005.

Plaintiffs sued manufacturer Gulf Stream Coach Inc. and installer Fluor Enterprises Inc., alleging that elevated levels of formaldehyde aggravated family members' asthma and increased their risk for getting cancer.  (FEMA was dismissed as a defendant in the lawsuit because of the two-year statute of limitations in cases brought against the federal government.)  They argued that Gulf Stream Coach, in expediting production of the housing units following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, used substandard materials and/or unsafe practices during the manufacturing process, which allegedly resulted in the temporary housing units containing higher than normal levels of formaldehyde. Plaintiffs alleged that Fluor's installation methods contributed to greater formaldehyde exposure.  They further charged that the FEMA trailer deviated from government safety specifications and that Gulf Stream failed to warn the government about the dangers of formaldehyde, which is found in construction materials as well as in glues and adhesives used in the manufacture of the units.

The claim is one of many hundreds of suits filed that are now part of the MDL, and one of the first five bellwether cases selected for trial. Readers of MassTortDefense will recall how Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast in 2005. The total damage of Hurricane Katrina has been estimated at $75 billion, while not-much-later Hurricane Rita caused $10 billion in damage. The government, through FEMA, moved individuals whose homes were lost or deemed uninhabitable into makeshift housing provided by the agency. Plaintiffs generally allege that the trailers had components that exposed them to dangerous and excessive levels of formaldehyde.

The defense here presented alternative causation evidence on the alleged respiratory issues, and noted that formaldehyde is found in safe levels in many products, including cosmetics, foods and shampoo. The defendants sold this trailer to the most sophisticated purchaser in the world, the United States government, argued the defense, and there is no duty to warn someone about something they know about already. The defense argued that Gulf Stream wasn't obligated to build a "perfect product."

The jury of five men and three women, after 8 days of testimony, decided that the trailer made by Gulf Stream Coach Inc. was not an “unreasonably dangerous” product under Louisiana law. Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt presided over the trial.  A likely issue on appeal will be the MDL court's decision to allow certain defendants to assert the government contractor defense.

Update on FEMA Trailer MDL

A federal judge has decided an that an advisory jury can hear evidence on claims against the U.S. government in bellwether trials in the MDL concerning alleged formaldehyde-laden trailers. In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation, MDL 1873 (E.D. La.)

Readers of MassTortDefense will recall how Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast in 2005. The total damage of Hurricane Katrina has been estimated at $75 billion, while not-much-later Hurricane Rita caused $10 billion in damage. The government, through FEMA, moved individuals whose homes were lost or deemed uninhabitable into makeshift housing provided by the agency.  Plaintiffs allege that the trailers had components that exposed them to dangerous and excessive levels of formaldehyde.

The court has decided that it will hold bellwether trials in the MDL. But the defendants include both private entities and the government. The government moved to strike the jury demand and requested that a jury not be involved in any manner in determining its liability. The federal government argued that, because the plaintiffs have filed claims under the Federal Torts Claims Act (“FTCA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671-2680 and 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b), the use of any jury is precluded under 28 U.S.C. § 2402 which states that “[a]ny action against the United States under section 1346 shall be tried by the court without a jury. . .”  The Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee (“PSC”) and the nongovernmental defendants both opposed the motion. Indeed, both the PSC and the non-governmental defendants contended that it is both permissible and sensible for the court to utilize an advisory jury who will hear evidence of the Government’s alleged fault in order to properly apportion liability to all parties. The government claimed that any use of even an advisory jury contravenes the statute and congressional intent to have FTCA cases decided by the court without a jury.

Rule 39(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states, in pertinent part, “[i]n an action
not triable of right by a jury, the court, on motion or on its own . . . may try any issue with an
advisory jury.”  The court found that it has the power to make use of an advisory jury in this case. Because of the purely advisory function that a jury empaneled under Rule 39(c) has, the use of an advisory jury is not precluded under 28 U.S.C. § 2402. The court concluded it will empanel a jury to hear the bellwether plaintiffs’ claims against the non-governmental defendants in the bellwether trials and will exercise its discretion to use that jury in an advisory capacity to hear the claims against the government in those same trials.

This advisory jury will not be asked or allowed to make a binding factual determination on the plaintiffs’ FTCA claims; instead, it will be allowed to hear the case and, through the verdict, advise the court, who will remain free to consider the same evidence and completely disregard such findings. The court determined that utilizing an advisory jury will alleviate jury confusion that would result if jurors are expected to listen to all the evidence against all the defendants - including FEMA - but then are instructed to ignore any evidence pertinent to the government.
 

 

Ruling on Contractors' Motion to Dismiss in FEMA Trailer MDL

The federal judge presiding over the MDL involving litigation claiming trailers issued after Hurricane Katrina allegedly exposed residents to formaldehyde has declined to dismiss government contractors that hauled and installed the trailers.  In re  FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1873 (E.D. La.).  Judge Engelhardt rejected the motion of Shaw Environmental Inc. and CH2M Hill Constructors, Inc. to be dismissed from a multiple-plaintiff case in the trailer MDL.  The court rejected the contractors' arguments that the plaintiffs lacked standing;  he also rejected the contractors'  argument that the FEMA trailer residents failed to plead claims cognizable under the Louisiana Products Liability Act.

The plaintiffs in this case are Louisiana residents who had lived in trailers issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They sued the makers and distributors of FEMA trailers
in November, 2007. Then in early 2009, the plaintiffs added trailer haulers and installers,
Shaw and CH2M Hill, as defendants.

The contractors argued first that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they had failed to link  particular plaintiffs to any particular defendant involved in their specific unit.  The court ruled that because the original complaint matched plaintiffs to trailer manufacturers, those originally named plaintiffs had standing to add defendants in the chain of distribution. Those plaintiffs who failed to assert any linkage at all were dismissed without prejudice.

Second, the contractors argued prescription, the Louisiana version of laches, asserting that the plaintiffs' products liability claims prescribed on May 18, 2007, or one year after the first trailer suit was filed. The contractors claimed that the plaintiffs should have known about their claim for formaldehyde exposure by that date. Judge Engelhardt, however, ruled that the clock started from the date of injury, and it is impossible to determine in advance exactly when each plaintiff became aware of his or her injuries.

"What each ... plaintiff knew about formaldehyde exposure or the possibility of legal claims relating thereto; what injury each such plaintiff allegedly experienced from such exposure, and when knowledge of these alleged injuries occurred, are questions that can be answered only a case-by-case basis. These facts are not evident from the face of the complaints,” Judge Engelhardt wrote.

Finally, Judge Engelhardt rejected the contractors contention that the state product liability act did not apply to them because they were not manufacturers of the trailers.  While Louisiana law determines that the proper assembly of a defective part does not create manufacturer liability, here, in contrast, plaintiffs contended that the alleged formaldehyde-related defect occurred in part because of the assembly process used by the contractors.  An alleged defect which manifests itself in the assembly process can impose Louisiana Products Liability Act "manufacturer" liability on a party when the defect is created by the assembly process, he concluded.

Readers will recall that last December, the court properly refused to grant class certification to the six proposed subclasses of plaintiffs in this MDL, finding they did not meet the standards required for class certification under Rule 23. The plaintiffs had sought certification of four state subclasses of individuals who resided in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as a future medical monitoring subclass, and an economic loss subclass.  And the court has begun selecting bellwether cases for the first trials.

 

FEMA Trailer MDL Decision on Preemption

The federal court overseeing the MDL involving trailers issued by the U.S. government following Hurricane Katrina has dismissed some of the plaintiffs' state law claims against mobile home manufacturer defendants, on the basis of the federal preemption doctrine. In Re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1873 (E.D. La.)

As readers of MassTort Defense know, Hurricane Katrina impacted much of the Gulf Coast in August 2005, and Hurricane Rita followed in September 2005, causing extensive damage along the Louisiana and Texas coasts. In the wake of the hurricanes, many individuals whose homes were lost or damaged moved into temporary housing provided by FEMA. Plaintiffs allege that these trailers exposed residents to high levels of the chemical formaldehyde, about which they were not warned. The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated a number of suits against defendants, including the federal government and several trailer manufacturers, over the alleged formaldehyde exposure in 2007.

Judge Kurt Engelhardt of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana last week granted the manufacturer defendants' motion to dismiss certain state law claims. The defendants asserted that the construction of these mobile homes was regulated by the Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards Act, 42 U.S.C. § 5401 et seq., (“the MHA”) and the regulations promulgated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), pursuant to 24 C.F.R. § 3280 and § 3282 (“the HUD Code”). Pursuant to the MHA, HUD established the Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards (“MHCSS”), 24 C.F.R § 3208 et seq., which govern the standards for formaldehyde emissions from materials used in manufactured homes. This regulation expressly and specifically dictates the maximum level of formaldehyde gas that component products in mobile homes can emit. The regulations also specify that a health notice on formaldehyde emissions shall be temporarily displayed in the kitchen of each manufactured home.Accordingly, the defendants asserted that the federal statutes and regulation in the MHA and the HUD Code explicitly and impliedly preempt plaintiffs’ state law claims against them.

As several courts have previously noted, the MHA does not explicitly preempt state causes of action. Turning to implied preemption, the court noted that implied preemption exists when state law regulates conduct in a field Congress intended the Federal Government to occupy exclusively (also referred to as “field preemption”), or when state law actually conflicts with federal law (also referred to as “conflict preemption”). Conflict preemption exists in two scenarios: (1) when compliance with both a state and federal law is impossible, and/or (2) when the state law conflicts with the federal law such that it stands as an obstacle to the achievement of the federal law’s purposes and objectives.

After analyzing the statute and regulations, the MDL court concluded that if plaintiffs in the instant case were allowed to go forward with their state product liability claims raising the ambient air standard, then defendants in the mobile home industry would essentially be required to deviate (in ways variable from state to state) from those federal standards so carefully and thoroughly crafted by HUD. The MHA clearly states that if states want to regulate safety matters that federal law already covers (like formaldehyde emissions), those regulations must be “identical.” 42 U.S.C. § 5403(d). Furthermore, it was noteworthy that the plaintiffs contend that the moving defendants should have adhered to the ambient air standard, which differs from the HUD-accepted component products standard. Thus, cases that present situations where the plaintiffs are not arguing that the defendants should have adhered to a standard higher than, or different from what the MHA imposes, are inapplicable.

The court concluded similarly that any such claims relating to inadequate warnings of exposure
to purportedly high levels of formaldehyde contained in the units, that require more than the federal
label standards, should be dismissed. However, any of plaintiffs’ state law claims that advance non-compliance with federal formaldehyde regulations (to the extent that such claims exist) are considered to be parallel claims, are not preempted and, thus, are not dismissed. See Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc., 128 S.Ct 999, 1011 (2008).

FEMA Trailer MDL Selects First Bellwether Trial

Judge Engelhardt of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, overseeing the MDL relating to the alleged formaldehyde contamination of FEMA trailers used in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, has chosen a lawsuit by a New Orleans woman and her son to serve as the first bellwether case in this MDL. See In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation, MDL-1873 (E.D. La.).  Plaintiffs generally allege that trailers issued by the government following Hurricane Katrina exposed residents to high levels of the chemical formaldehyde.

The court had ordered the parties to submit the names of no less than 50 potential bellwether trial plaintiffs. From these names, one plaintiff for each of four bellwether jury trials was to  be selected. The manufacturer defendants for these four trials had to be the four estimated to have the most emergency housing units at issue in this proceeding. (These four manufacturers are Gulf Stream, Fleetwood, Forest River, and Keystone RV.)  Only plaintiffs who have identified and sued one of the four manufacturers, the relevant contractor, and the Government, were eligible to serve as bellwether trial plaintiffs. In addition, the bellwether plaintiffs must be selected from those plaintiffs for whom Plaintiff Fact Sheets already have been obtained and provided to the defendants. In addition, actions chosen for bellwether trials must have proper venue in the Eastern District of Louisiana, unless the parties in question consent to trial in this district.  The court, from that list, selected the case brought by Alana Alexander and Christopher Cooper against Gulf Stream Coach Inc. to be the first that will be tried in federal court. The trial is set for Sept. 14, with three other cases against the other different defendants scheduled to follow as the court approached the hundreds of suits through a series of bellwether trials.

Readers will recall that last December, the court properly refused to grant class certification to the six proposed subclasses of plaintiffs, finding they did not meet the standards required for class certification under Rule 23. The plaintiffs had sought certification of four state subclasses of individuals who resided in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as a future medical monitoring subclass, and an economic loss subclass.

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated a number of suits against the
government and a handful of trailer manufacturers over the alleged formaldehyde exposure
in October 2007, despite defendants’ objections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  released in 2008 the results of a study which it commissioned concerning formaldehyde levels in mobile homes provided to residents of the Gulf Coast affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  CDC has been working with FEMA and other agencies to investigate possible levels of formaldehyde in the trailers and mobile homes.
 

Class Certification Denied In FEMA Trailers MDL (Part II)

The federal court in the FEMA Trailer MDL has denied class certification to a class of plaintiffs alleging that they were harmed or put at risk of future harm by formaldehyde exposure after residing in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers following Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. See In re FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation, MDL No.1873 (E.D. La., class certification denied 12/29/08).

In a previous post, MassTortDefense reported on the court’s analysis of the personal injury class claims. Today, we look at the medical monitoring class claims, a topic about which we have posted before.

In addition to all the general reasons set forth for why class certification was inappropriate, the court offered additional analysis as to why certification of the medical monitoring class (the "future medical services sub-class" ) was inappropriate.

Plaintiffs contended that class-wide common issues of law and fact included: (1) whether certain plaintiffs were significantly exposed to formaldehyde, an allegedly hazardous substance; (2) whether certain plaintiffs now suffer a significantly increased risk of contracting a serious latent disease, associated with formaldehyde exposure; (3) whether certain plaintiffs’ risk of contracting such a disease is greater than (a) the risk of contracting the same disease had there been no exposure, and (b) the chances of members of the public at large of developing the disease; (4) whether a medical procedure exists that makes the early detection of any such diseases possible; (5) whether the future medical services regime for such detection is different from medical services recommended in the absence of exposure; and (6) whether there is some demonstrated clinical value in the early detection and diagnosis of any such diseases. In essence, plaintiffs alleged that most of the elements of a medical monitoring claim were common.


The Court felt, however, that the first two allegedly class-wide issues, exposure and increased risk, were actually individual issues. Whether an individual has been “significantly exposed” to formaldehyde will differ depending on several variables, including other exposures, past and present cigarette use, formaldehyde-containing cosmetics use, etc. Thus, an accurate exposure level for a class representative has no bearing on an accurate exposure level for any other member of the proposed class because of these differing variables. Similarly, determining an individual’s risk of developing a particular formaldehyde-related disease or injury is keyed to several individual factors, including level of exposure, duration of exposure, and other individual characteristics such as whether the person has other risk factors for contracting a particular injury or disease.

Second, while the proposed medical monitoring sub-class would require the application of laws of “only” four different states, plaintiffs failed to make any substantial attempt to explain whether any individual variations in those states’ laws are manageable here, or whether they would “swamp common issues of law and fact.”

Next, the court found that plaintiffs’ proposed class was unorthodox in that it sought an order to monitor and treat the injuries that have resulted from that exposure. That is, a future medical services subclass should be certified to set up and maintain a program by which plaintiffs’ injuries may be detected and treated. Seemingly, plaintiffs went beyond the usual talk of treatment in the context of whether treatment exists such that monitoring could be beneficial, to essentially call for the development of a program aimed at also providing treatment to individuals (especially children) who have been adversely affected by hazardous levels of formaldehyde in the units.

But, by essentially requesting monitoring and treatment in the class, subclass members would arguably be relieved of the burden that they would bear in an individual suit, relative to proving any current manifest injury or disease. The court agrees found that plaintiffs were indeed attempting to skip over the process of obtaining the requisite liability finding against the manufacturing defendants, by holding them responsible for funding a monitoring and treatment service for injuries that a jury may later deem was never their responsibility. In other words, the monitoring program requested by plaintiffs seems to bypass a liability finding on injury in favor of immediate medical monitoring and treatment, both. Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate to the court why defendants should be asked to pay for such a program without, first, a finding of liability against them.

Finally, defendants contended that plaintiffs, as a group, did not meet the “manifest physical injury” requirement, which they asserted is a prerequisite for medical monitoring in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, asserted that they meet this requirement because the physical injury they claim to have suffered is in the form of “cellular and molecular” damage. Even without addressing the issue whether such cellular damage qualifies as a manifest present injury, the court felt it would still be faced with the individualized inquiry of whether formaldehyde exposure resulting from the units caused those "injuries." This is not an issue that can be determined on a class-wide basis.

Accordingly, the medical monitoring class claims involved too many individual issues. 

 

CDC Announces Results Of Study Of Formaldehyde In FEMA Trailers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released the results of a study which it commissioned concerning formaldehyde levels in mobile homes provided to residents of the Gulf Coast affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The trailers, which were provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to survivors of the hurricane, have been the targets of a series of lawsuits around the United States. See In Re FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1873 (E.D. La.). CDC has been working with FEMA and other agencies to investigate possible levels of formaldehyde in the trailers and mobile homes.

RESULTS

The study was conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and concluded that the individual component parts of the trailers contained formaldehyde below federally regulated levels, but when combined, the formaldehyde level can rise higher than regulatory limits/industry standards. That is, in the study of four vacant trailers, CDC's contractor found that the amount of formaldehyde given off by each trailer part was not higher than the limit set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The higher overall total “may be because” the trailers use more composite wood products, such as thin particleboard, than site-built or manufactured houses, have more composite wood products in a smaller space than site-built or manufactured homes, and/or let in less fresh air than does a site-built or manufactured house. The study found that the trailers had more wood paneling in a more constricted space than other homes. “These findings indicate that elevated formaldehyde levels are most likely due to a construction/design issue in the trailers,” said the report.

Berkeley scientists focused on commercially available trailers and models built custom for FEMA by four makers. Scientists tested formaldehyde levels inside trailers for one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. LBNL then tested individual pieces of the trailer at the Berkeley, Calif. lab. for emissions from specific parts of each trailer, such as walls, floors, ceilings, tables and cabinets. Some 45 small material samples of wood products from the 4 units were collected to measure their material-specific emission rates for 33 compounds. Only three of the compounds tested for were detected, and formaldehyde was the only one considered to be of possible human health significance. An important finding was that only one material of the 45 tested exhibited formaldehyde emissions in excess of the HUD standard.

CAREFUL INTERPRETATION NEEDED

CDC said the study helped identify the sources of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds that may make the largest contributions to the indoor air quality. It also indicates that the amount of ventilation affects the concentrations found in the air. However, MassTortDefense notes that the study analyzed only 4 vacant, never-used trailers, which were provided by FEMA, including two trailers that were specifically designed to be used as temporary emergency housing and thus not commercially available. CDC admits that this study, because it only examined four travel trailers, did not provide results that could be applied to all FEMA-supplied travel trailers or to other types of temporary housing, such as park models or mobile homes. That will likely not stop plaintiffs from trying to misuse it in litigation.  

Such studies can present significant challenges in litigation because they may have the aura of credibility associated not only with an "independent" testing facility but also the government agency which commissioned the study. Generally speaking, parties facing such studies will want to carefully analyze the study, with expert assistance, to detect any issues with methodology, data, conclusions or application to the facts in the case at issue. For example, this study did not compare trailers purchased "off the lot" by FEMA to those designed specifically for FEMA use. Such flaws can point the way to investigations defendants may undertake to properly and more fully address issues in the litigation.  Similarly, CDC admits that "the results of the LBNL investigation described in this report are not definitive."   It would be arguably improper for plaintiffs' experts to place more reliance on the results than the agency that commissioned the study. Finally, defendants facing such studies will want to carefully explore potential sources of bias or interest on the part of the agency or testing facility.