A high-profile Flint water crisis lawsuit against two private engineering firms ended Thursday with a hung jury, a development that experts say makes a settlement less likely in the near future but allows opposing attorneys to learn lessons from the five-month case.
U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Michigan David Grand declared a mistrial after receiving a note from the eight-member jury saying they did not believe they could reach a verdict without endangering health mental and physical of the only recalcitrant juror.
“Further deliberations will only cause stress and anxiety, without a unanimous decision, without someone having to give up their honest beliefs just for the purpose of rendering a verdict,” the note said.
The development came after a two-week deliberation and a five-month trial for a lawsuit brought by four children who lived in Flint during the city’s tainted water crisis against Veolia North America and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN ) for their alleged role in the Flint water crisis. It was Flint’s first water-related lawsuit to go to trial since the man-made disaster began nearly a decade ago.
The case had been touted as an indicator that could set a precedent for dozens of Flint water lawsuits against the two defendants.
The mistrial essentially puts the trial back on track, but with some lessons learned from the first round, said Richard Marcus, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings.
“We’re back to square one with some additional information,” Marcus said, explaining that “both sides have now seen the other side take a case to trial.”
It also means the likelihood of a settlement is more remote, he said, adding that had the jury returned a verdict of guilty against this defendant, it could have raised serious settlement considerations.
How the decision was made
Grand opened Thursday’s session by reading the memo aloud to attorneys before allowing the two sides to make their submissions on how to proceed.
Counsel for the plaintiff sought to continue the investigation before declaring a mistrial in order to better understand the welfare and stability of the jury, particularly after several emotional outbursts from one of the jurors raised concerns about that juror’s ability to continue serving. The lawyer stressed that he could still come to a verdict, stressing that the importance of the case justified the extra effort.
“This case, as indicated by the very verdict form we are reviewing, is the first landmark case, and it is in the interest of all parties to the Flint water crisis litigation to have counsel of jurors,” the plaintiff said. lawyer, Moshe Maimon, partner of the New York law firm Levy Konigsberg.
Defense attorneys for LAN and Veolia argued in favor of the declaration of a mistrial.
“What they said here is that it would be stressful to continue deliberations. But it is without any purpose,” said Cheryl Bush, a lawyer representing Veolia. Busch described the circumstances in the memo as “the epitome of a mistrial.”
In the end, Grand sided with the defense attorney and called off the trial.
“In my opinion, the jury has spoken,” said Grand, who described them as perhaps “the most dedicated group of jurors to ever serve in the Eastern District.”
The development late Thursday morning came after two previous memos were sent by the jury during deliberations saying they did not believe they could reach a unanimous verdict.
On July 28, the jurors wrote: “The jury is hanged. We believe that further deliberations will not produce a unanimous decision.
Then again, Thursday morning, they sent a note saying, “We believe the jury will not reach a unanimous decision, even with further deliberation.”
After the first memo was sent on Thursday, the judge held a conference with the jury and attorneys and watched as the recalcitrant juror burst into tears for the second time since deliberations began. The jurors were then given further instructions to the jury to return to the jury room again to deliberate.
“Know that you’re struggling to reach unanimous agreement, but that’s not unusual. And sometimes, after further discussion, the jurors can resolve their differences and come to an agreement,” Grand wrote in the instructions.
Shortly after, they sent back the third and final note explaining the toll that subsequent deliberations would impose on them.
What happens after
Thursday’s hung jury marks the latest development in a case that has spent years working its way through Federal Court and means the case will be retried in the coming months.
The plaintiffs are four young children who lived in Flint during the city’s contaminated water crisis, which was caused by a botched water supply switch that left thousands of children potentially exposed to high levels of lead.
Lead is a neurotoxin that can have serious effects on brain development in children. Lawyers for the four children have sought to show that LAN and Veolia’s work with Flint’s water system at various times before and during the water crisis contributed to the mental and physical effects the water had. on their young bodies.
The city of Flint began using water from the Flint River as a source of municipal drinking water in April 2014. For 18 months, the improperly treated water corroded the city’s pipes, leaching heavy metals in the process of road as it flowed into people’s homes, exposing the town’s 100,000 residents. to contaminated water. The water source was changed in October 2015.
In 2013, about a year before the water change, LAN was hired to help the city of Flint prepare its sewage treatment plant for the new water supply. Company personnel were aware that the city had decided not to use orthophosphates as a form of corrosion control to treat Flint River’s acidic water.
The lawsuit accused LAN of professional negligence and a “collective failure” in properly preparing the city’s water treatment plant to use the Flint River as its primary source of drinking water and failing to report the dangers of not using corrosion control.
Veolia was commissioned by the city in early 2015 to help the city solve water quality problems following the passage to the river. The emails show that company personnel discussed the corrosion and lead issues internally. Ultimately, however, Veolia made no formal recommendations to the city to correct these issues. The city continued to use the Flint River for another eight months without addressing corrosion issues and continuing to put thousands of Flint children at risk of lead poisoning.
In court, Veolia argued that city officials failed to disclose important information, leaving the company without sufficient information about potential lead issues in the system.
But mistrials are not common, an expert says.
“Mistrials happen. Jurors don’t always agree,” said Jay Tidmarsh, a Notre Dame law professor with a background in complex civil litigation.
But the purpose of a showpiece trial is to help establish the basis of the defendant’s potential liability, what the case is worth and what the risks are for both parties, Tidmarsh said.
Lessons learned involve each side learning which cookies worked best, he said.
“It’s not that you don’t learn anything (from a mistrial), but in terms of getting information, they’re the least useful,” he said.