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Flint water bellwether trial ends in mistrial. Plaintiffs vow to retry the federal lawsuit

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Steve Carmody | Michigan Radio
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"The jury has spoken," said U.S. Magistrate Judge David Grand.

That's how, nearly six months after it started, the Flint water bellwether case ended, in a mistrial.

The case involved damage claims on behalf of four children exposed to Flint's lead-tainted drinking water. The lawsuit their families brought targeted two engineering firms hired as consultants on Flint's water system.

The firms were accused of not doing enough to get Flint to treat the water that damaged aging pipes, because of a lack of corrosion control, or to urge a return to Detroit's water system.

Attorneys for Veolia North America (VNA) and Lockwood Andrews & Newman (LAN) argued their clients bore no responsibility for any negative health effects the children may have suffered from being exposed to the lead-tainted tap water.

The jury was in its seventh day of deliberations. In the end, the eight-member jury sent a note to the judge Thursday morning, saying they faced "physical and emotional" harm if deliberations continued. The note talked about the "stress and anxiety" of the proceedings in the jury room.

Attorney Corey Stern represents the plaintiffs in the case. In a written statement, he expressed disappointment that the case ended in a mistrial.

Stern said they plan to retry the case.

"Bellwether trials are designed to teach everyone about various issues, so that as each case is tried going forward, the parties have more information each time to assist them in narrowing issues," said Stern. "We learned plenty and will use all of the knowledge we gained to help us when we re-try this case for our four kids, and for all of the other trials that will follow."

Attorney Wayne Mason represented LAN. Outside the courthouse in Ann Arbor, he said the deadlocked jury showed that after months of evidence and witnesses, the plaintiffs did not prove their case.

This was considered a bellwether case, since it was expected to serve a guide for future similar lawsuits.

In court, Judge Grand suggested it still may.

"The proceedings have not been a waste," said Grand.

There are other similar lawsuits in various stages of the legal process involving these defendants and people suing over Flint's tainted drinking water.

Jeremy Orr is a professor at the Michigan State University College of Law. He specializes in environmental law, with a particular focus on issues pertaining to drinking water.

He said the mistrial should not be seen as having a broad impact on future Flint water crisis civil cases.

"I think it's a small win for the defense," said Orr. And as for the plaintiffs, Orr opined, "You have to ask yourself, 'what was it about this case we presented that led to this level of uncertainty?'"

The jury heard testimony from more than forty witnesses, from family members of the child plaintiffs to water system experts. But a handful of potential witnesses invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, including former Governor Rick Snyder.

Snyder and others have been the subject of a criminal investigation into the Flint water crisis.

U.S. District Judge Judith Levy ruled Snyder and the others had to testify in court, since they had already testified under oath in pre-trial depositions. But the former governor and the rest appealed to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court has yet to rule on the appeal.

With this mistrial, there is still a chance Snyder and others may have to testify in a future trial.