Michigan's state health department director will stand trial for involuntary manslaughter tied to the Flint water crisis.
District Judge David Goggins Monday decided the state has enough evidence to warrant binding director Nick Lyon over for trial. The charges stem from the deaths of two men from Legionnaires Disease in 2015.
“The victims’ deaths, that is Robert Skidmore and John Snyder, their deaths were caused by this neglect of the defendant,” Goggins read from his opinion, “in (Nick Lyon’s) failure to act appropriately with regard to disseminating notices to the public.”
Lyon and other state department officials were aware of a deadly Legionnaires Disease outbreak in Genesee County in January, 2015. But the department did not issue a public advisory about the outbreak until January 2016. The department did advise doctors and medical institutions in 2015. Between 2014 and 2015, at least a dozen people died from Legionnaires Disease in Genesee County, and dozens more were sickened. Evidence connecting the Legionella bacteria outbreak to Flint’s ill-fated drinking water switch in 2014 is disputed.
In addition to two counts of involuntary manslaughter, Lyon is also charged with misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty.
“What we’re looking at today is the first step and the next step for justice for the moms, the dads and kids of Flint,” says Andrea Bitely, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Attorney General’s office.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver praised the decision to send the case to trial.
“The people of Flint have been traumatized by the actions, or lack of actions, by state officials,” Weaver said in a written statement, “This is a good step on the road to recovery and healing for the people of Flint. I hope that the state continues to be held accountable for the state's decisions.”
Lyon’s defense attorneys plan to challenge the decision.
“The circuit court, and if not there the Court of Appeals, are going to look at this and they’re going to refuse it will make your head spin,” Bursch told reporters during a break in the hearing.
Defense attorneys say the judge’s opinion, which took him more than two hours to read from the bench, highlighted witnesses and evidence presented by prosecutors during the nearly year-long preliminary hearing. Bursch says Judge Goggins did not address issues the defense raised.
Nick Lyon is one of 15 current and former government officials criminally charged in the Flint water crisis. He is also the highest ranking state official charged.
Despite Monday’s decision, Gov. Rick Snyder issued a statement saying he plans to keep Nick Lyon as the director of the Department of Health and Human Services, saying that Lyon has his “full faith and confidence.”
“Nick Lyon has a long and tenured career in public health and has been a strong leader at the Department of Health and Human Services. Even during an unprecedented, nearly yearlong preliminary exam, Director Lyon has remained focused on his job and Flint's full recovery. Like every other person who is charged with a crime, he should be presumed innocent unless and until he is proven guilty."