For the first time in the 12 years that Bill Simpkins’ hydrogeology course has reenacted a landmark groundwater trial, a hung jury led to a mistrial.
Simpkins’ class reenacts the 1986 trial that became a book and motion picture titled, “A Civil Action.” In the real-life drama, some Woburn, Mass., residents accused three companies of polluting the groundwater, which was drawn into city wells. The bad water, they alleged, led to the cancer deaths of local children.
The trial is a “great learning experience,” Simpkins said. His students enhance their knowledge of hydrogeology concepts by playing the roles of lawyers, witnesses and scientific experts. They prepare for hours to sway a jury of ISU students and also stay in line with “Judge” Bowman, a graduate student and teaching assistant in the course.
Students also really enjoy the trial. They often come in costumes and there’s even a fake tear or two from one of the witnesses. Laughter is often heard, and it’s always been enjoyable to watch.
A couple other universities also reenact the trial, but Simpkins’ version is the only one that serves as a capstone event for an upper-level hydrogeology course – meaning the students must know their science.
A record large class this semester forced Simpkins for the first time to hold two trials. The night after the mistrial, a second jury ruled in favor of the plaintiffs (the residents suing the companies). The big difference in the two trials: the juries. The mistrial came from a jury of engineering students, most of whom had a groundwater unit in a class. The second jury featured students from many majors.
“The more diverse jury the second night, comprised of mostly non-scientists, based its verdict on emotion and that favored the plaintiffs,” Simpkins said. “They believed the companies probably did something bad and they should pay.”
After 13 trials, juries have ruled for the plaintiffs eight times and the defendants four times, plus the mistrial. In the actual trial 28 years ago, the parties settled out of court. – Steve Jones