The 16th annual reenactment of the Civil Action mock trial in November 2018 produced an overwhelming 14-4 jury verdict of “Guilty”, breaking a string of two consecutive “Not Guilty” verdicts in previous years.
“The plaintiffs did just enough to convince the jury that the defendants were guilty, despite the defense team’s efforts to highlight the long history of industrial activity and use of Trichloroethylene (TCE) by other parties in the watershed that could have also contaminated city wells G and H” said Bill Simpkins, hydrogeology professor in the Department of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences, who manages the annual event. “And, for the first time in the history of the mock trial, a key expert witness for the defense pointed out the uncertainty involved with the groundwater velocity calculations” said Simpkins. The witness, Dr. Bill Simpkins, played by junior Environmental Science major Thomas Doyle, showed that the parameter known as hydraulic conductivity had a wide range of values, which could strongly influence the groundwater velocities and TCE travel times estimated by the plaintiffs.
Since 2002, Simpkins’ senior/graduate level hydrogeology class has reenacted the 1986 trial that later became a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction book and motion picture entitled, “A Civil Action.” In the real-life drama, parents of eight Woburn, Massachusetts children accused three companies of polluting the groundwater that supplied drinking water for the town. The TCE-contaminated water drawn from Woburn municipal wells is suspected to have caused the leukemia that resulted in the death of those children. In real life, the case was settled out of court before it went to the jury.
The trial reinforces concepts from the class, including groundwater flow, velocity, and travel time; groundwater flowpath analysis; well hydraulics and groundwater-stream interaction. This year’s 18 students assumed the roles of attorneys and expert witnesses, including geology and hydrology experts. According to Simpkins, the trial is a great learning experience, an excellent group project, and a successful capstone for the course. A few universities do similar reenactments, but Simpkins’ version is the only one that is implemented in a senior/graduate-level course. In the 18 trials that have occurred, the plaintiffs lead 11.5 to 6.5 (2014 yielded a hung jury).