Judge issues split decision on lawsuits for Flint water engineering firms

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

A federal judge ruled Monday that several engineering firms involved in studying Flint's tainted water system can't be held liable for one aspect of allegations in a civil lawsuit but can for another portion.

U.S. District Judge Judith Levy weighed in on the case brought by attorneys for four unnamed children in a professional negligence suit against Veolia North America LLC, Veolia North America Inc. and Veolia Water North America Operating Services LLC, Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam Inc., Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam, P.C. and the Leo A. Daly Company "for harms arising out of the Flint Water Crisis."

The Flint Water Plant and Flint water tower in Flint on Jan. 13, 2021.

The judge said Veolia and others can't be held liable for recommendations it did or didn't make related to its 2014 contract with the city but can be in relation to its 2015 contract with Flint because it was specifically tasked with evaluating "the quality of Flint's water" and had a "duty to avoid foreseeable physical harms arising out of that undertaking."

The children in the suit allege they have suffered neurocognitive harms as a result of their exposure to lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint.

VNA was hired in 2014 to conduct a systemwide evaluation of Flint's water operations, with an eye toward making the Detroit Water and Sewage Department more cost-efficient. Veolia's work culminated in a formal report, which it submitted to DWSD, the governor’s office and several state of Michigan officials in December 2014.

"There is sufficient evidence in this record to permit a reasonable jury to find that VNA causally contributed to plaintiffs’ injuries by negligently failing to issue an urgent warning to the city of Flint about the impending danger to the health of Flint residents," Levy  wrote.

But the judge added the plaintiff's "cannot establish that VNA owed them a duty in 2014."

All the plaintiffs' cases have been consolidated for the purpose of holding the first bellwether trial in the Flint Water litigation, according to the ruling.

In 2016, then-Attorney General Bill Schuette sued a pair of engineering firms that included Veolia for allegedly allowing the Flint water contamination crisis to “occur, continue and worsen."