Federal judge certifies class action groups in case against Flint water consultants

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A federal district judge certified two separate issue groups for class action lawsuits filed against two engineering firms that were hired to advise the city of Flint ahead of the Flint Water Crisis. 

In a 144-page opinion released Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Judith Levy certified a "multi-defendant" issues class and a "LAN" issues class that can proceed with a suit against LAN, or Lockheed Andrews & Newnam, and VNA, or Veolia North America. 

U.S. District Judge Judith Levy

The two firms, which are accused of providing bad advice related to the Flint lead contamination water crisis, did not join a $641 million settlement between Flint residents and the state and area hospitals. They will instead proceed forward with the litigation process. 

Levy, in her opinion, declined to grant plaintiffs' request to certify one "master" issues class and four subclasses, instead limiting the certifications to two.

"Issues-based resolution of common claims will streamline litigation at both the class and individual levels by allowing the parties to dispute common, class-wide claims 'in one fell swoop,'" Levy said.

VNA in a statement Thursday said Levy's opinion indicated that "the true responsibility for the Flint water crisis lies with the government officials who failed to protect the people of Flint."

"As we have repeatedly stated, Veolia North America had no role in the decision to switch the water source to the Flint River and the resulting harmful consequences for the people of Flint," said Carrie Griffiths, a spokeswoman for Veolia North America. "We are looking forward to proving these facts at trial."

The city initially had hired LAN to consult on the use of the Flint River as a water source in 2011, at which time the company "cautioned against it and warned that the dormant (Flint Water Treatment Plant) would require millions of dollars in upgrades in order to treat the raw river water safely," according to a summary of the case in Levy's opinion. 

The city continued to pursue a switch in water sources and, in 2013, hired LAN again to determine the steps the city would need to take to transition to the Flint River. At the time, the city ended its contract with the Detroit area water system with the plan to eventually join the then unfinished Karegnondi Water Authority.

LAN, at that time, advised on the upgrades and water quality control needed and said an April 2014 timeline was possible. It did not recommend a corrosion control program, Levy wrote.

When chlorine was used to address E. coli in the water after the switch to the Flint River, officials did not put in corrosion controls and LAN "allegedly never raised red flags" about the harm that could result, according to Levy's summary.

The city, in February 2015, hired VNA and rehired LAN to review the city's water to address public health concerns that had cropped up about the water after the switch.

Both LAN and VNA recommended ferric chloride, which experts said would have increased water acidity and corosivity, Levy wrote.

About a week after it was hired, VNA said in an interim report that the city "was in compliance with drinking water standards," the judge wrote. But, internally, the company mentioned concerns about corrosion and indicated a reconnection to Detroit water would have been the easiest solution.

LAN has argued its role was mischaracterized because it was "basically shut out from water quality decision making," Levy wrote.

VNA has argued that its final report recommended an initiation of discussions with the state about adding corrosion controls.