Mistrial in Michigan Water Contamination Lawsuit Blamed on Jury Stress
FLINT, Mich. — A federal judge declared a mistrial Thursday in a lawsuit over contamination of the Flint, Michigan, water supply after jurors who were unable to reach a verdict told him they were too stressed to continue.
After nearly a week of deliberations, the jurors sent the judge a note saying, “For the physical and emotional health of the jurors, we don’t believe we can continue with further deliberations.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of local children against two utilities contractors who engineered a change in drinking water sources that is believed to have made lead leach into municipal pipes. The children’s attorneys said they drank the contaminated water in their homes and schools during 2014 and 2015.
While the plaintiffs blamed the engineering firms Veolia North America LLC and Lockwood Andrews & Newnam, the contractors blamed public officials.
There was one legal issue in the case, namely professional negligence.
Under Michigan law, the engineering contractors were required to take reasonable steps to avoid foreseeable harm to the public. The plaintiffs needed to prove the defendants breached their duty of care and caused them injuries.
The contractors said state and local officials were grossly negligent in pressuring them to switch the water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, which is known for acidic pollutants. The water source was switched back to the lake in October 2015.
Project managers appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder tried to save money by using water from the river while a new pipeline was being built to Lake Huron.
Lead was not the only problem, according to an attorney for Veolia. “This was a full-blown water crisis,” said attorney Dan Stein.
The contractors said they were called into the water purification dispute after government project managers made all the major decisions. They also said they recommended more testing to determine the appropriate treatments but their requests were rebuffed.
Attorneys for the four children named as plaintiffs said the contractors should have done a better job of treating the corrosive river water, which ate away at pipes and released lead into drinking water. They also said they should not have allowed the switch from a regional water supplier in Detroit, Michigan, to tapping into the Flint River.
The plaintiffs asked the jury to find Veolia 50% liable for the damages from lead contamination, LAN 25% responsible, and that public officials and entities should share the rest of the blame.
The lawsuit focused heavily on potential neurological damage to children, who are most susceptible to lead contamination.
Witnesses included geochemists, water engineers, neurologists and the children’s family members.
The five-woman, three-man jury during the trial in Ann Arbor, Michigan, asked the judge during deliberations for clarifications, definitions, copies of an engineering report and other exhibits, according to court records.
After being told by the judge to try again, the note they sent back said, “Further deliberations will only result in stress and anxiety with no unanimous decision without someone having to surrender their honest convictions, solely for the purpose of returning a verdict.”
Attorneys for the children asked the judge to allow a less than unanimous verdict. U.S. Magistrate Judge David Grand declined, saying, “This is not a focus group.”
The mistrial means a new trial will be needed, despite the fact the first one took years of preparation. The trial started Feb. 28 after two weeks of jury selection procedures.
In a separate lawsuit over the Flint water contamination, the state, city of Flint and a local hospital agreed last year to pay property owners and more than 100,000 Flint residents $626 million to settle their claims.
Juror stress is not a new issue in jury deliberations, according to trial experts.
“One issue with which trial courts struggle is how to assist jurors who have served in particularly difficult trials, especially trials involving gruesome evidence or emotional testimony, lengthy trials, and high-profile trials,” wrote Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies, in a recent National Center for State Courts newsletter.
“These types of trials can provoke serious stress-related symptoms in jurors, including anxiety, depression, nightmares, and even physical symptoms such as nausea, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and shortness of breath,” Hannaford wrote.
About 70% of jurors report some stress from jury duty while less than 10% report high stress, she said.
The judge in the Flint lawsuit explained his declaration of mistrial on Thursday by saying, “In my view, the jury has spoken.”
The case is Walters et al. v. Flint et al., case number 5:17-cv-10164, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
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