ANN ARBOR, Mich. (CN) — The conclusion of a sprawling federal civil lawsuit over lead-tainted water in Flint, Mich., was in sight Wednesday as attorneys delivered closing statements in the case against two companies that were not part of an agreed settlement of the crisis.
The jury trial began in February and featured testimony from dozens of witnesses. It is considered a landmark lawsuit because it could predict how fair other plaintiffs might be if they decided to go to court against these defendants, engineering companies 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 occasionally cracked with emotion.
“Flint’s water crisis is what happens to a community when no one is looking,” he said.
He added, “You learned from so many people, so many times, and in so many ways that Flint’s water officials had no idea what they were doing.”
Stern referred to his young patrons as “precious commodities” who were being poisoned for simply using the city’s water source.
“No expert said there was no lead in their bones,” he said.
The attorney accused LAN of controlling the damage when they attempted to change 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 mocked comments by Veolia North America engineer Theping Chen, who testified and downplayed emails in which he wrote that 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 objected and said he was just “thinking out loud…because it was out of scope.” work of VNA”.
Stern also told the jury that engineering firms should not be singled out as the sole cause of the crisis, but that they can be seen as an important part of the decision-making that led to the crisis in the contaminated water.
In February, Stern argued in his opening statement that VNA downplayed the 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 purpose. lucrative, which would not be possible with the Detroit line. .
VNA attorney Daniel Stein of Mayer Brown made clear in his closing statement Wednesday that the water crisis can be attributed to inaction and incompetence by government officials, not outside engineers.
“VNA was there for a week…and tried to help,” he said.
He bristled at Stern calling the damage control defense. He said 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 were falsely accused of poisoning children… so no, this is not damage control , it’s not pirouette…it’s not a story, it’s a defense,” Stein said. declared.
He added: “No one is trying to hide.”
Stein insisted that VNA did a good job and made the appropriate recommendations on controlling water corrosion, and based on the information given to them, lead in tap water was not considered an urgent problem.
He said the decisions made by emergency financial managers did not consider citizen safety and that they were more concerned with saving $12 million a year from hooking up Detroit’s water. He cited testimony from former Flint emergency manager Gerald Ambrose, who directly dismissed Detroit’s back-to-water attempts and issued a statement that Flint’s water was safe.
The defense attorney was careful not to call the child applicants liars, but suggested there were other factors at play.
“We don’t deny there was a water crisis… but if there is evidence of a lead crisis, that’s a different story,” he said.
He added: “These children are all doing well, none seeking treatment for lead poisoning. These wounds only exist in this courtroom.
In his opening statements in February, Stein called the contamination crisis a “massive failure of government” and blamed former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who he said could have ordered a return to driving. Detroit Water earlier, but did nothing until October 2015.
He concluded his closing statement by revisiting Snyder’s guilt and blaming it on a short-sighted administration.
A historic $626.5 million crisis settlement was finalized last year and included payments for Flint citizens and business owners affected by the poisoned water, with most of the money going to intended for victims who were under the age of 18 at the time. LAN and VNA were not part of this regulation.
Under the terms of the agreement, 79.5% of the funds will be allocated to minor children and a $35 million fund will be established for future minor applicants. Adult victims and property damage claims will account for 18% of the money and less than 1% is allocated to commercial losses. Another 2% will be used for a dedicated fund to provide special education for those who have developed long-term neurological damage from lead contaminated water.
The crisis began in April 2014 when a state-appointed emergency official 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 did not require anti-corrosion chemicals as part of the water treatment process.
Snyder, the former Republican governor of Michigan, was criminally charged in January 2021 in Genesee County District Court with willful dereliction of duty for his role and pleaded not guilty to the allegations. The case bogged down in appeals court until recently, when the charges had to be dropped due to a procedural error, according to a Michigan Supreme Court ruling.
Closing statements will continue Thursday morning, when LAN attorneys speak, followed by a rebuttal by the plaintiffs’ team.
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