ANN ARBOR, Mich. (CN) — A federal civil trial against two engineering companies accused of contributing to the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan, reached the final stage Thursday as closing arguments concluded and the jury prepared to deliberate.
Wayne Mason of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, attorney for Lockwood, Andrews & Newman, or LAN, used his folksy demeanor for a spirited defense of the engineering firm.
Mason was stopped by U.S. District Judge Judith E. Levy early in his statement to note that even though he kept referring to Warren Green, chief technical officer for LAN, it was LAN on trial and not Green.
“I want to be…clear that a company acts through its people,” the attorney responded to the critique.
Mason said he and his team could not figure out why LAN was included in the trial.
“The testimony we were hearing was about stuff he didn’t know about…it was about stuff that happened when he wasn’t in Flint,” he said of Green.
The attorney said there was one main reason his client was named as a defendant.
“You probably figured out exactly what they wanted. It’s the color green,” he told jurors.
He added: “We must look like plums on a tree.”
Mason said there was nothing wrong with any of the work LAN performed for Flint and instead pointed the finger at local government officials. He also took a shot at the intentions of the plaintiffs' counsel.
“Tricksters want to divert your attention away from the true facts…those city and state and federal officials who failed to do their job,” he said.
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, LAN and another engineering firm, Veolia North America. The companies are not part of a $626.5 million settlement approved last year.
The plaintiffs in the case are four Flint children, whose attorneys argue the two engineering firms were negligent in not getting the city to properly treat water taken from the Flint River beginning in 2014.
On Thursday, Mason told jurors in an Ann Arbor federal courtroom that LAN was not included in the decision-making process to switch to the Flint River and accused city officials of avoiding testing that might hinder the plan they agreed upon.
“Not being able to run the operational tests meant not being able to test the water quality…but you figured out who wasn’t disappointed when the city of Flint couldn’t do those quality tests: the money people,” he said.
Mason said that in all the years the water crisis was investigated, no one blamed LAN or Green.
When Mason completed his statements, Levy expressed concerned about his rhetoric toward the plaintiffs' lawyers and reprimanded his approach.
“That won’t be allowed in the…closing argument because it does violate…the rules that guide closing arguments,” the judge said.
Levy told the jury to disregard those statements and not to consider a financial motive on the part of the plaintiffs' counsel.
Attorney Corey Stern of Levy Konigsberg Stern, representing the children, brushed off the attacks and said the focus of the trial was clear in his rebuttal.
“For us, this case is about four kids,” he said.
Stern said the defense had a lot of good stories, but they were the “wrong stories.”
The attorney maintained that Veolia North America, or VNA, stood to gain a $2 million contract from the city but knew it could not get the deal if Flint went back to Detroit water.
“Let’s be intellectually honest when we evaluate evidence,” Stern pleaded.
Jurors are expected to begin deliberating the case as soon as Thursday afternoon.
Stern began with a lengthy closing argument Wednesday, has voice cracking with emotion at times.
“The Flint water crisis is what happens to a community when no one was watching,” he said.
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.
VNA’s attorney Daniel Stein of Mayer Brown said in his closing statement Wednesday that the water crisis can be traced to the inaction and incompetence of government officials that were more concerned about saving $12 million a year from the Detroit water hookup.
He said that VNA was never in charge of the water plant but now there are workers whose reputations have been tarnished.
“In this courtroom they have been falsely accused of poisoning children…so no, it’s not damage control…it’s a defense,” Stein declared.
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…whether there is evidence of a lead crisis is a different story,” he said.
In his opening statements back in February, Stein characterized the contamination crisis as a “massive government failure” and blamed former Michigan Republican 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.
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 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. A hearing for Snyder’s case is scheduled for next month in Genesee County District Court.