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Engineering firms on trial over Flint water contamination

Featuring testimony from dozens of witnesses, the bellwether jury trial could last several months.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (CN) — A federal civil trial over lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, began Monday against two companies that are not part of a massive settlement agreement over the crisis.

Attorneys for four children sued engineering companies Veolia North America and Lockwood, Andrews & Newman, or LAN, for negligence over their alleged role in the contamination. The companies are not part of a $626.5 million settlement approved last year.

Representing the plaintiffs, attorney Corey Stern of Levy Konigsberg used his opening statement to chart a timeline of what he termed as “unreasonable” behavior from the engineering companies, which he accused of bypassing critical testing and treatment.

Stern discussed a “puzzle of liability” for the case and attempted to compare it to a car crash pile-up on a freeway where one good driver is rear-ended by a distracted driver and a chain reaction of crashes behind them happens as a result.

“Each subsequent car is partly responsible,” he said.  

The attorney said LAM was commissioned by the city of Flint to conduct several analyses but never warned that corrosion inhibitors and controls would be required to avoid lead contamination and never completed testing.  

“They had the opportunity, they did nothing,” he said.

Stern said top officials at Veolia, which also had a city contract, repeatedly assured Flint citizens that the water was safe even though lower-level workers expressed concern. He said the company’s business interests prevailed over common sense.

The attorney claimed Veolia downplayed an option for Flint to return to the city of Detroit's water source because the company saw an opportunity to run the Karegnondi Water Authority for a profit, which would not be possible with the Detroit line.

The plaintiff children are claiming injuries from their exposure to lead in Flint’s drinking water from 2014 to 2015. They will not be present at the trial, according to Stern, who detailed their developmental delays and neurological injuries caused by the lead exposure.

Veolia's attorney Daniel Stein of Mayer Brown characterized the contamination crisis as a “massive government failure” in his opening statement.

“Veolia didn’t cause the Flint water crisis, didn’t prolong the Flint water crisis and didn’t make it worse,” he told jurors.

Stein said Veolia was hamstrung by Flint city officials, who restricted its ability to evaluate water in neighborhoods and provided incomplete and inaccurate data.

“We now know that data was flawed,” he said.

He said Veolia was hired to combat the crisis 10 months after the switch to Flint River water and that the company was never accused of running flawed tests.

“They said the right things to the right people,” Stein said about corrosion control recommendations from Veolia workers that he said were disregarded by city workers.

Stein also blamed former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who he said could have ordered a return to the Detroit water line sooner but did nothing until October 2015.

“Governor Snyder failed in his duties to the city of Flint,” he said.

Representing LAN, Wayne Mason of Faegre Drinker concluded the day with his opening statement and echoed Stein’s claims of government incompetence. He said the accusations against his client amounted to a “smear.”

“This is a failure of government. Period,” he said.

Mason focused on accusations against Chief Technical Officer Warren Green, who the attorney said was shut out from decision making by city leaders.

“Warren takes water treatment seriously and he thought they did too,” Mason said, adding Green was promised by city workers that proper testing would occur.  

Mason said Green recommended treatment chemicals, but Michigan Department of Environmental Quality administrators nixed the idea.

“He gave good advice,” the attorney said passionately. “They just didn’t listen.”

The jury trial could stretch out over several months, with testimony from dozens of witnesses. It is considered a bellwether trial because it could forecast how other plaintiffs might fair if they decide to go to trial against these defendants.

One of the largest in state history, the $626.5 million settlement over the crisis includes payments for Flint citizens and business owners affected by poisoned water, with most of the money directed to victims who were under 18 years old at the time.

The parties to the settlement include Flint, Snyder, the state of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, McLaren Regional Medical Center and city contractor Rowe Professional Services Co. 

Under the terms of the settlement, 79.5% of the funds will be apportioned to minor children and a $35 million fund will be established for future minor claimants. Adult victims and property damage claims will account for 18% of the money and less than 1% is allocated for business losses. Another 2% will be used for a dedicated fund to offer special education to those who developed long-term neurological damage from the dirty water.

The lead contamination crisis began in April 2014 when a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s drinking water supply from Lake Huron water treated in Detroit to Flint River water treated at the Flint Water Treatment Plant. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials admitted they failed to require corrosion-control chemicals as part of the water treatment process.

Snyder, Michigan’s former Republican governor, was criminally charged in January 2021 in Genesee County District Court for willful neglect of duty for his role in the catastrophe and pleaded not guilty to the allegations.  The case remains in appeals court.

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