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Flint water crisis trial against engineering firms nears end

Defense attorneys maintain the whole debacle can be traced back to government officials looking for any way to save money with little regard for the safety of citizens.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (CN) — The conclusion of a sprawling federal civil trial over lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, was in sight Wednesday as attorneys presented their closing statements in the case against two companies that were not part of a settlement agreement over the crisis.

The jury trial began in February and featured 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, engineering firms Veolia North America and Lockwood, Andrews & Newman, or LAN.

Attorney Corey Stern of Levy Konigsberg Stern, representing the children named as plaintiffs in the case, began with a lengthy closing argument where his voice cracked with emotion at times.

“The Flint water crisis is what happens to a community when no one was watching,” he said.

He added: “You’ve learned from so many people, so many times in so many ways that the folks in charge of Flint’s water had no idea what they were doing.”

Stern talked about his young clients as “precious commodities” that were poisoned for simply using the city’s water source.

“Not one expert said there wasn’t any lead in their bones,” he said.

The attorney accused LAN of extensive damage control when they attempted to shift the definition of “water softening” to include corrosion control to avoid litigation.

“Not because it was, but because it had to be,” he said.

Stern derided comments from Veolia North America engineer Theping Chen, who testified and downplayed emails in which he wrote the best option for Flint was to reconnect to the city of Detroit's water system. Stern reminded the jury that when pressed on the witness stand, Chen demurred and said he was just “thinking out loud…because it wasn’t in VNA’s scope of work.”

Stern also told the jury the engineering firms don’t have to be singled out as the sole cause of the crisis, but they can be found to be a significant part of the decision making that led to the contaminated water crisis.

In February, Stern argued in his opening statement that VNA 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.

VNA’s attorney Daniel Stein of Mayer Brown was clear in his closing statement Wednesday that the water crisis can be traced to the inaction and incompetence of government officials, not outside engineers.

“VNA was there for one week…and tried to help,” he said.

He bristled at Stern characterizing the defense as doing damage control. He said that VNA was never in charge of the water plant but now there are workers whose reputations have been tarnished.

“This is a very serious and important case for the people of VNA because in this courtroom they have been falsely accused of poisoning children…so no, it’s not damage control, it’s not spin…it’s not a story, it’s a defense,” Stein declared.

He added: “No one is looking to hide.”

Stein insisted that VNA did good work and made the appropriate recommendations on corrosion control of the water, and based on the information they were given, lead in the tap water was not considered a pressing issue.

He said the decisions made by emergency financial managers did not consider the safety of citizens and that they were more concerned about saving $12 million a year from the Detroit water hookup. He quoted the testimony of former Flint emergency manager Gerald Ambrose, who directly rejected attempts to return to Detroit water and put out a statement that said Flint water was safe.

The defense attorney was careful not to call the plaintiff children liars but suggested there were other factors at play.

“We’re not denying there was a water crisis…but whether there is evidence of a lead crisis is a different story,” he said.

He added: “These children are all doing well, none are seeking treatment for lead poisoning. These injuries exist only in this courtroom.”

In his opening statements back in February, Stein characterized the contamination crisis as a “massive government failure” and 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.

He concluded his closing statement by returning to Snyder’s culpability and placing the blame on a short-sighted administration.

A historic $626.5 million settlement from the crisis was finalized last year and included 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. LAN and VNA were not part of that settlement.

Under the terms of the agreement, 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 lead contaminated water.

The 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 and pleaded not guilty to the allegations.  The case was bogged down in appeals court until recently when the charges were expected to be dropped due to a procedural error, according to a Michigan Supreme Court decision.

Closing statements will continue Thursday morning, when attorneys for LAN will speak followed by a rebuttal by the plaintiffs' team.

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