Mistrial declared in Flint water crisis civil trial after jury couldn't reach a verdict

A federal judge declared a mistrial in the Flint water crisis civil trial Thursday after jurors informed the court they could not reach a unanimous verdict after weeks of deliberations.

Federal Magistrate Judge David Grand declared the mistrial after jurors presented a note saying “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.”

The lawsuit was brought by four plaintiffs who were children when the water crisis began in 2014. The plaintiffs claimed two engineering firms working in Flint at the time of the water crisis, Veolia Water North America Operating Services (VNA) and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN) failed to take adequate steps to respond to the lead contamination that struck the city.

Plaintiffs' attorneys claimed the lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water resulted in developmental and social issues for the group and sought millions in damages. The firms’ defense teams argued the fault for any lead contamination lies with former state and Flint officials, including former Gov. Rick Snyder, who submitted a video testimony earlier in the trial.

"Responsibility for the Flint Water Crisis lies with these government officials who made the decision to switch Flint’s water source to save money at the expense of residents’ health and well-being, and who have so far escaped all accountability for their actions," a VNA spokesperson said in a statement following the mistrial result.

Grand began presiding over the case after District Judge Judith Levy stepped away from the case Tuesday. Levy stepped away because of a medical issue, per the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where the trial was held. Proceedings were also broadcast over Zoom.

Ten jurors were originally present, but two dropped out during the course of the trial, which began in February. Deliberations began July 21.

New York-based attorney Moshe Maimon, representing plaintiffs, argued the court could individually interview jurors and accept a verdict of seven of the eight jurors, which Grand rejected.

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Cheryl Bush, an attorney representing VNA, said individually interviewing jurors could coerce them into delivering a verdict that did not necessarily reflect their true opinions after weeks of deliberating.

“What they have said here is that it would be stressful to continue deliberations," said Bush. "They are precisely following the jury instructions that Judge Levy gave after the close of the case and consistent with the charge given by the court today.”

“To do anything else other than declare a mistrial would be coercive.”

Grand agreed, informing counsel that further haranguing of jurors after the months they've put into the trial would likely be meritless.

“I believe the jury has made clear that they are hopelessly deadlocked after a good faith effort to reach a unanimous verdict," Grand said. “Even in their deliberations, I’ve seen nothing but the same amazing effort to do what the court asked of them.”

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Veolia's U.S. operations are based in Boston, and the company provided 98 million people with drinking water in 2019, per its website. LAN is a civil engineering company with locations throughout the U.S., with the majority of its offices being in Texas and California.

The trial had been referred to as a "bellwether trial" because its outcome could significantly affect how the claims of other plaintiffs against the companies will be resolved.

Levy previously approved a $626.25-million partial settlement, for tens of thousands of Flint plaintiffs, for claims against the state, the city, McLaren Hospitals, and Rowe Professional Services Co., which did engineering work for the city. LAN and Veolia were not part of that historic settlement.

Criminal cases against Snyder and other former state officials for their involvement in the water crisis are currently in transition after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in June that a circuit court judge improperly acted as a one-man grand jury to deliver indictments. The Supreme Court's ruling remanded the cases back to the Genesee County Circuit Court, where a judge is expected to dismiss the cases, but state attorneys have vowed to continue to pursue criminal charges against the former officials.

Contact Arpan Lobo: Follow him on Twitter @arpanlobo.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Flint water crisis: Jury hung, mistrial declared in civil trial