Defense in Flint water trial says suit motivated by 'the color green'

Kayla Ruble
The Detroit News

A lawyer for a private engineering firm accused Flint water crisis victims of targeting the company out of greed, during closing arguments for the civil trial involving the lead contamination of the city's water supply.

In closing arguments delivered on Thursday morning in the first Flint water crisis case to make it to a trial, defense attorney Wayne Mason referred to the lawsuit against his client, private engineering firm Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, or LAN, as a "mopey plaintiff case."

U.S. District Judge Judith Levy, who is presiding over the trial in a lawsuit against two contractors in the Flint water crisis case, admonished the defense team during its closing arguments Thursday.

The trial stems from lawsuits filed on behalf of four Flint children against LAN and Veolia North America, private firms that were contracted by the city to help with water treatment needs at various points in the lead up to and during the water crisis. The bellwether trial, which opened in February, will set a precedent for dozens of Flint water crisis lawsuits against the two defendants.

Speaking of the early days of the case, the defense attorney discussed the company's confusion about being named in the lawsuit. 

“Frankly, we couldn't figure out why plaintiffs kept us in as defendants,” Mason said, claiming most of the information coming out involved government officials.

“We at LAN thought that the plaintiffs would see that also and just let us go home. They wouldn't do it. They wanted something from us. And you probably figured out exactly what they wanted,” he said, pausing to hold up his hand as if he was holding a wad of cash. “It's the color green.” 

The plaintiffs in the case the lawyer was referring to are four young children — Andrea Teed, Riley Vanderhagen, Emir Sherrod and Daylanna Warre — who were living in Flint during the city's contaminated water crisis, which was caused by a botched water supply switch that left thousands of kids potentially exposed to high levels of lead.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can have severe impacts on brain development in kids, and attorneys for the four children are seeking to show LAN's work with the Flint water system in the lead-up to the water switch contributed to the injuries they say they have endured.

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 lawsuit accuses the company of "collective failure" in properly readying the city's water treatment plant to use the Flint River as the primary source of drinking water and failing to report the dangers of not using corrosion control. 

The company's legal team has argued the decision was made by state and local officials, and that its engineers are not responsible for it, nor could they have known with certainty what kind of impact skipping orthophosphates would have on the city's pipes.

Mason's statements came on the second, and final, day of closing arguments in the federal trial against two private engineering companies for their role during the Flint water crisis and their alleged contributions to the public health disaster that followed.

The defense attorney also sought to reframe the lawsuit as a case not just against the company, but a case against the firm's vice president and chief engineer Warren Green, sparking pushback from U.S. District Judge Judith E. Levy, who is presiding over the jury trial.

Early in his closing statements, Mason told the jury they held both LAN and Green's fate in their hands. As he walked through the decision ahead of the jury, he continued to refer to the connection between the case and Green's livelihood, prompting an interjection from Levy clarifying to the jury that Green is not the one on trial.

Later, Mason referred to the claims in the case as "potentially career-ending". The comment triggered an objection from the plaintiff's counsel Corey Stern, an attorney at the New York-based law firm Levy Konigsberg, and a second interjection from Levy.

"Was there evidence of a career ending? Was there evidence from a witness?" Levy asked.

"That's my position here about the impact of this," Mason responded.

"We have to have evidence so I just ask that you please move on and focus on the evidence," she said.

As he wrapped up his statements, Mason said the jury should deliver “an emphatic and firm no” on the lawsuit’s accusation that LAN breached the standard of care and committed malpractice, asking them to send the plaintiffs' attorneys home without a victory in the case.

“Send them home to work on something legitimate, next time to leave out the innocent defendants. No high fives," Mason said.

After the defense concluded its arguments and the jury was out of the courtroom, Levy again admonished the team's attorneys for questioning the motives of the plaintiffs. Once the jury returned, Levy addressed the issue with them as well.

"Personal accusations about plaintiff's lawyers ... should be disregarded, as well as the plaintiffs' motives," she said.

As the trial continued on Thursday, Stern took the floor to deliver his final rebuttal. The attorney, who represents thousands of Flint children, used part of the time to respond to the accusations made by the defense team about the motives of his team and the plaintiffs.

“Lawyers who represent brain-damaged kids don’t high-five each other when they win, we don’t,” Stern said.

The trial concluded Thursday afternoon after Stern's rebuttal, with Levy delivering final instructions to jury as they begin deliberations.

kruble@detroitnews.com