Flint civil trial shows consequences of lawsuit abuse

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This op-ed was originally published by the Detroit News. In a surprising development for those who followed the case for the past seven months, the jury in the latest Flint […]

This op-ed was originally published by the Detroit News.

In a surprising development for those who followed the case for the past seven months, the jury in the latest Flint water settlement civil case remained deadlocked on Aug. 11 in a federal courthouse in Ann Arbor after weeks of deliberations, forcing federal magistrate Judge David Grand to declare a mistrial.  

Even more shocking were the words of attorney Hunter Shkolnik, a trial attorney involved in the 2021 Flint water settlement, who commented on the mistrial saying the next trial would be the “death knell” of the two defendant companies. Corey Stern, the plaintiffs’ attorney involved in the mistrial, told reporters, “if I (were the companies), I’d be scared to death. I’ll keep trying until I die.” 

These statements are not only irresponsible, but also demonstrate the trial bar’s view that the purpose of our civil justice system is not to find liability but rather to destroy a business. It’s become clear that what is billed as an effort to seek justice for victims of the Flint water crisis is anything but. Instead, this latest civil trial has exposed the true intentions of the plaintiffs’ attorneys involved: to get rich by bankrupting companies with deep pockets.  

The previous judge overseeing the case, Judith E. Levy, had already approved a settlement of over $626 million to compensate victims in November of 2021. So why bring additional litigation against two engineering companies who claim they were kept out of the loop or only entered the Flint water crisis after lead was already detected? The trial lawyers’ incendiary statements seem to indicate that it’s because the $200 million in legal fees they collected from the original settlement was not enough.  

There’s no doubt that our civil justice system can be abused in order to enrich the trial bar. Across the country, we have witnessed the implementation of the trial lawyer playbook where predatory litigators attempt to bankrupt companies by filing frivolous lawsuits or making exorbitant demands for settlements. 

These abuses can have devastating impacts on businesses, large and small. But more importantly, it often ends with trial lawyers taking home millions while real victims are left with pennies. That was the case in the original 2021 Flint water settlement where victims took home on average only $4,500 each.

Compared to the millions that trial attorneys received, former mayor of Flint Karen Weaver responded calling the 2021 settlement, “a slap in the face” and saying “this was not justice for the people of the city of Flint.” 

The American legal system is renowned for its fairness and impartiality. But when lawsuit abuse runs rampant, the scales of justice can become tipped in favor of those bringing the lawsuits. Meritless cases clog up our courts and prevent legitimate claims from being heard in a timely manner. Furthermore, the costly nature of litigation can ultimately discourage defendants from seeking redress through the legal system. When lawsuit abuse is allowed to flourish, it undermines the very foundation of our justice system. 

While there is no doubt that the residents of Flint suffered tremendously, it’s clear that some of the subsequent lawsuits are nothing more than opportunistic attempts to cash in on the crisis. As a result, it has become a prime example of how lawsuit abuse can take advantage of innocent victims. 

From the beginning in 2014, the crisis in Flint has required leaders to seek creative solutions to address these problems and provide needed support to those who were injured through no fault of their own. We still need these leaders — not profit-seeking lawyers — to step up and serve the public interest by addressing the needs of those who truly suffered in Flint. 

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