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.