Closing arguments begin in Flint water crisis bellwether trial

Kayla Ruble
The Detroit News

An attorney who represents four Flint children argued Wednesday in federal court that two engineering firms are among those who should be held responsible for the lead contamination of water that they and other city residents drank and bathed in.

Lead plaintiffs' attorney Corey Stern opened the morning proceedings with an emotional, two-hour long closing arguments, seeking to summarize evidence presented over the course of a trial that started five months ago.

“The true story of the Flint water crisis is what happened to a community when no one was watching,” said Stern, standing behind a lectern as he addressed the jury with U.S. District Court Judge Judith E. Levy presiding. 

“Andrea Teed, Riley Vanderhagen, Emir Sherrod and Daylanna Warre were drinking and otherwise using water in all the ways, and that water was toxic.”

After Flint's water crisis, 35% of Black adults in the U.S. said they didn't drink tap water, up from 25%. High-profile cases of lead contamination in predominantly Black cities have led to a distrust of tap water, which can have long-term health and financial consequences. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The trial stems from lawsuits filed on behalf of the four children against Veolia North America and Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc., two private firms that were contracted by the city to help with water treatment needs at various points during the water crisis. 

The case will serve as a precedent for similar lawsuits filed by Flint residents against the same defendants.

Since the trial started in late February, Stern has sought to prove that Veolia and LAN bear at least partial responsibility for the lead contamination of the city's water supply and that their actions contributed to the injuries his clients incurred.

The city of Flint began using the Flint River water as its municipal drinking source in April 2014. For 18 months, the improperly treated water corroded the city's pipes, leaching heavy metals along the way as it flowed into people's homes, exposing the city's 100,000 residents to the contaminated water.

In 2013, about a year before the water switch, LAN was contracted to assist the city of Flint in preparing its water treatment plant for the new water supply. The company's staff members were aware that the city had decided against using orthophosphates as a form of corrosion control to treat the acidic Flint River water. The company's lawyers have argued the decision was made by state and local officials, and that its engineers are not responsible for it. 

Veolia was hired in early 2015, about a year after the water switch occurred, to help get to the bottom of Flint's water quality problems amid growing complaints from residents. The plaintiffs accuse Veolia of failing to include critical information about the city's lead problems in the final report it delivered to officials.

Both companies have argued that state and local officials were the ones at fault, saying the Flint water crisis resulted from governmental failures.

On Tuesday afternoon, Veolia lawyer Daniel Stein spoke for several hours as part of the company's closing arguments.

“Members of the jury, you put together all of the evidence. They are pieces of a puzzle, but they’re pieces of the puzzle that (Veolia North America) just doesn’t fit into,” said Stein.

Stein instead pinned blame on actors like former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, state and federal environmental regulators, state-appointed city managers and others. 

"While the people of Flint deserve better in terms of their water, there's just no evidence that any of these children were injured as a result of anything (Veolia North America) did," he said toward the end of his closing arguments.

Throughout the proceedings, Stern has argued that when it comes to the Flint water crisis there is “a puzzle of liability” involving multiple actors and entities that contributed to the man-made disaster, with the two engineering firms making up just part of that puzzle. The lawyer reiterated to the jury on Tuesday that they only need to find the firms partially responsible, not solely responsible.

“There may be more than one proximate cause of the plaintiffs' injury,” Stern said. 

Closing arguments from the defense team will resume Wednesday.