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Mistrial declared in Flint water crisis case against engineering firms

Lawyers for four children who brought the case pushed for deliberations to continue, but the presiding judge said jurors were sincere in their unsuccessful attempts to arrive at a unanimous verdict.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (CN) —A mistrial was declared Thursday in the case against two engineering companies accused of contributing to the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan, after a jury was unable to agree on a unanimous verdict following weeks of deliberation.

U.S. Magistrate Judge David Grand – filling in for U.S. District Judge Judith Levy, who had an undisclosed medical condition that forced her to relinquish the case – was convinced the jury had given their best effort.

“This jury may be the most dedicated group of jurors to ever serve in the Eastern District of Michigan,” he said.

Grand read a note the jury presented him Thursday morning that said they were unable to continue.

“For the physical and emotional health of the jurors, we don’t believe we can continue with further deliberations. Further deliberations will only result in stress and anxiety with no unanimous decision without someone having to surrender their honest convictions solely for the purpose of returning a verdict,” he recited.

“In my view, the jury has spoken,” the judge surmised. “I declare there has been a mistrial.”

Attorney Moshe Maimon of Levy Konigsberg, representing the four plaintiff children who brought the case, tried to argue the jury had not followed the direction of the court and implored the judge to conduct interviews with the jurors to determine the state of their anxiety.

“We believe it is appropriate for the court…to conduct an individual inquiry of each juror with regard to their ability to follow the court’s instruction, to continue to deliberate,” Maimon said.

He added, “We would ask that the court instruct the jury to continue deliberating.”

Attorney Cheryl Bush of Bush Seyferth, representing defendant engineering firm Veolia North America, or VNA, moved immediately for a mistrial.

“What [the jurors] have said here is that it would be stressful to continue deliberations, but it is without any purpose,” she said.

Bush said the jurors followed the instructions precisely and are exhausted from the trial.

“These people have put in six months of their life…they have been thoughtful,” she said. “This note is the epitome of a mistrial.”

The jury trial began in February in Ann Arbor federal court and featured testimony from dozens of witnesses. It was considered a bellwether trial because it could forecast how other plaintiffs might fair if they decide to go to trial against these defendants, VNA and Lockwood, Andrews & Newman, or LAN. The companies were not part of a $626.5 million settlement approved last year.

The plaintiffs in the case were four Flint children, whose attorneys argued the two engineering firms were negligent in not getting the city to properly treat water taken from the Flint River beginning in 2014.

In July, LAN's attorney, Wayne Mason of Faegre Drinker, 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, suggesting the plaintiffs and their attorneys were motivated by money.

When he was allowed to speak Thursday, Mason bristled at the idea that a less than unanimous verdict was even proposed.

“After we provided instruction to the jury and knowing in federal court that a unanimous decision is required and signing off on all of that…to tell the jury to come back with something less than unanimous is totally inappropriate,” he told the judge.

VNA’s attorney Daniel Stein of Mayer Brown said in his closing statement on July 20 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.

In his opening statements 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.

The historic $626.5 million settlement over 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 Aug 23 in Genesee County District Court.

Snyder’s team was in appeals court on July 28 in an ongoing effort to allow him to plead the Fifth Amendment at any future trials where he might be subpoenaed.

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