updated 12/29/2008 4:47:41 PM ET 2008-12-29T21:47:41

A judge on Monday refused to grant class-action status to lawsuits claiming that thousands of hurricane victims were exposed to potentially toxic fumes while living in government-issued trailers.

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled that a batch of lawsuits on behalf of hundreds of plaintiffs against the federal government and several trailer manufacturers can't be handled as a class action because each person's claim is unique and must be examined individually.

Government tests found elevated levels of formaldehyde in many of the trailers that housed victims of Katrina and Rita after those powerful hurricanes clobbered the Gulf Coast in 2005. Formaldehyde is a preservative that can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.

Lawyers for the storm victims accuse trailer makers of using shoddy materials and building methods in a rush to meet the government's demand for emergency housing for the displaced. The attorneys had argued that a class-action lawsuit would efficiently resolve all the cases from Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama that Engelhardt is presiding over in New Orleans.

An appeal may be in the works
But the judge said the cases involve hundreds of trailer models made by dozens of companies and occupied by people with varying medical histories and symptoms.

Tony Buzbee, one of the lead lawyers for plaintiffs, said he respects the judge's decision but hasn't ruled out an appeal.

"What it means is that we will try each of these cases individually," he said. "We're very excited about moving past this phase and getting some of this evidence before a jury."

A Justice Department spokesman said he couldn't comment on Engelhardt's ruling because it involves ongoing litigation.

A lawyer for trailer makers didn't immediately return a call for comment Monday.

Thousands of families got trailers
The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided trailers or mobile homes to more than 144,000 families displaced by the 2005 hurricanes.

About a year ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested the air quality in hundreds of occupied trailers and found formaldehyde levels that were, on average, about five times higher than what people are exposed to in most modern homes.

The symptoms reported by trailer dwellers include nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, skin rashes and ear infections.

More on: formaldehyde | Katrina

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