Iowa State student jury says ‘guilty’ in mock trial for water contamination

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10th annual mock trial is a hydrogeology learning experience Students in an Iowa State University hydrogeology course, taught by Professor Bill Simpkins, participated in the annual water contamination mock trial based on the facts from the book "A Civil Action." Other students formed the mock jury.

By Bill Simpkins Professor, Department of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences

After nearly 20 minutes of deliberation, a jury composed of 16 Geology 100 students returned a verdict of "guilty."

Thus was the verdict in December when Iowa State University students in my hydrogeology course re-tried the toxic tort case that became A Civil Action, a bestselling book and a 1998 motion picture (starring John Travolta). It was the sixth time that a jury of ISU students sided with the plaintiffs, in this the mock trial’s 10th anniversary.

A Civil Action is a 1995 Pulitzer-prize-winning book by Jonathan Harr that describes the tort lawsuit brought by the residents of Woburn, Mass. in 1982. They charged that multiple companies (including W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods) had allowed the TCE (trichloroethylene), a common solvent used for cleaning metal parts and in tannery operations, to leak into groundwater during the 1970s. The TCE was drawn unknowingly into Woburn’s drinking water through City Wells G and H, only to be discovered by testing in 1979. The residents (plaintiffs) further alleged that TCE contributed to an increase in unexplained illnesses and produced a leukemia cluster in the town. Five young children ultimately died from leukemia-related illnesses, presumably from drinking TCE-contaminated water.

From a historical perspective, the tort case was one of the first of its kind involving groundwater contamination. Tried in 1986 (and beyond) in Massachusetts Superior Court, it featured expert testimony by famous hydrogeologists, hydrologists and geologists whose purpose was to prove or disprove that the companies contributed to TCE contamination in the wells. The case and the rulings from it are frequently discussed in environmental law classes throughout the U.S.

In the hydrogeology class, students first read the book and learn about the characters, the timeline of events, the presentation of evidence and the trial proceedings. During the reading, students see how expert testimony was correctly or incorrectly used to make key points. It gives students a taste of the difficulties involved convincing a jury using evidence from eyewitnesses and scientific experts. The book provides a window into the world of the real courtroom.

The junior/senior-dominated class is divided into two teams, one representing the plaintiffs (Anne Anderson et al.) and one representing the defendants in the trial (Beatrice Foods/John J. Riley Tannery and W.R. Grace/Cryovac). The two defendants are usually combined into one defendant in order to streamline the trial. Students choose which of their group will be lawyers or expert witnesses or both. The book serves as a deposition, which is normally part of the discovery process for any legal proceeding. Students assume the identities of at least three witnesses from the book (they may have up to five witnesses) and argue their case in front of a jury consisting of primarily non-science majors taken from a Geology 100 class.

In recent years, students have had access to an additional resource – Science in the Courtroom: The Woburn Toxic Trial – hosted by the Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College ( In 2008, I participated in a workshop with Dr. Scott Bair of The Ohio State University and others at SERC to design the modules that appear on the site.

Despite the wealth of information available now for the mock trial (including witness transcripts on the SERC web site), the testimony and verdict are different every year. While the evidence presented is true to the actual case, the testimony is not scripted and the teams have wide latitude as to what evidence they use and how they present it. For example, the plaintiff’s groundwater expert used the Groundwater Ant Farm Model (sold by the ISU Soil and Water Conservation Club), injecting red dye into the groundwater to show vividly the process of contamination. The model had not been used in the trial for about eight years.

What of this year’s results? Overall, I was surprised by the verdict. The expert witnesses for the plaintiff were good, but their credibility was damaged during cross-examination by the defendants. That should have sown doubt into the minds of the jurors; but the jury voted guilty apparently because they believed the defendants still did something bad.

Based on course reviews, the students and the jury enjoy participating in the event. This is a unique learning experience. Not only do the students learn about basic trial procedure, but the exercise forces them to integrate their knowledge and use it to convince a jury of fellow students, which knows quite a bit less about the subject. It’s exciting to see them show what they have learned in the context of the case. It also highlights those concepts that I may need to emphasize more in future years.

The class, this year composed of 19 Geology, Environmental Science, and Civil Engineering students, also got a glimpse of their future, part of which may be spent in courtroom cases like this one. I tell students, "If you are an expert in hydrology, you’ll likely end up testifying in a courtroom someday." In that sense, this is a good trial run.