Supreme Court: Flint residents can seek damages from state in lead crisis
A class-action lawsuit targeting state officials for their role in the Flint water crisis can move forward, and residents may ultimately deserve monetary compensation for their alleged injuries, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
A majority of the six-justice panel (a seventh justice recused herself) agreed that the named plaintiffs — six Flint residents who allege former Gov. Rick Snyder and state agencies violated their rights by making cost-cutting decisions that exposed them to lead-tainted water — established a claim strong enough to withstand the state’s attempt to kill the case.
The case is one of several class-action suits targeting state and federal regulators for their role in the Flint water crisis. But it is unique as the only legal avenue for plaintiffs to pursue monetary damages against the state government.
Plaintiffs allege the state took their property without compensation and violated their due process by violating their right to bodily integrity through decisions that contaminated their water. State lawyers had asked the Supreme Court to throw out the case, arguing among other things that the plaintiffs relied upon a legal principle that has no remedy in state law and missed a deadline to file their suit.
In the decision Wednesday, the court affirmed plaintiffs’ right to pursue claims that the state took their property through inverse condemnation (that is, that the state took their property without compensating them). The justices split on the bodily integrity claim, which leaves intact a lower court ruling that allowed that claim to proceed.
Justice Elizabeth Clement recused herself from the case because she had worked as Snyder’s chief legal counsel before he appointed her to the bench. That left the case to the court’s six other justices, who are evenly split between Republican and Democratic appointees.
The Supreme Court ruling means the state has "no more legal obstacles they can throw in our path" and the case can advance towards trial and be decided on its merits, said Julie Hurwitz, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
"It's a major victory, not only for Flint residents, but for everybody in the state of Michigan, because this addresses the ongoing viability of our rights as Michigan residents and citizens to be able to hold the state itself accountable for its role in perpetrating constitutional violations," she said.
"And for the people of the city of Flint, it means they are now able to hold the state accountable for its role in this particular tragedy that they caused."
Reached by Bridge Wednesday afternoon, Ryan Jarvi, a spokesman for Attorney General Dana Nessel, said only that the state is “reviewing the decision.” Nessel, a Democrat, inherited the case when she took office in 2019, replacing Republican Bill Schuette, but has vigorously defended the state’s position.
By now, the Flint story is well-known: In April 2014, under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, Flint switched its water source from Detroit to the Flint River in an attempt to save money. But the city failed to treat the water with anti-corrosion chemicals, which the state should have required, and lead from aging water pipes subsequently leached into Flint residents’ drinking water.
As residents complained of foul odors and discolored water coming from their taps, officials continued to insist the water was safe. Subsequent studies revealed widespread lead contamination and a near-doubling of the occurrence of elevated lead levels in Flint children’s blood.
Although lead levels in Flint’s water have fallen since the city resumed obtaining its drinking water from Detroit, plaintiffs in the class-action suit argue that damage to their property from the water switch has limited their ability to use their property, lowered their property values and reduced their home’s marketability. Those property losses amount to an illegal government taking of private property without compensation, they allege.
“Taking these factual allegations as true as we are required to do,” Justice Richard Bernstein wrote in a lead opinion joined by Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and Justice Megan Cavanagh, “we conclude that plaintiffs sufficiently alleged that defendants’ actions were a substantial cause of the decline of their property’s value.”
A majority of the court’s justices also rejected state lawyers’ request to toss the case on grounds that plaintiffs had missed a deadline to file their suit.
Residents filed their suit in January 2016. State attorneys, seeking to stop the case, argued during oral arguments in March that the plaintiffs needed to file within six months of April 25, 2014, the day Flint began using the Flint River as its drinking water source.
During the March hearing, a lawyer for the plaintiffs noted that Flint residents had no way to know in April 2014 that their water was tainted, because government officials assured them it was safe.
Bernstein appeared to agree.
"You're basically in a situation where you were telling people there was no problem, and now you're saying that because people listened to you, they should be held accountable for the fact they didn't act because they were listening to you,” he said at the March hearing.
In Monday’s ruling, the majority concluded that more information is needed to determine when the plaintiffs’ six-month filing window began.
In a dissenting opinion, justices Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra agreed with the state’s argument and contended the case should be dismissed.
“The actionable harm alleged in plaintiffs’ two complaints consists of the exposure to the toxic water from the Flint River, which began on April 25, 2014,” Markman wrote. “Simply put, plaintiffs did not file a notice of intention to file a claim or the claim itself within six months of that date.”
The case will now head back to the Michigan Court of Claims for further proceedings.
The Supreme Court ruling is also important because it confirms that emergency financial managers who Snyder appointed to run Flint can be held liable as state actors, said Hurwitz, noting she is scheduled to depose former Emergency Manager Darnell Early later this week as part of the case.
"What they did to the city of Flint was eviscerate it," Hurwitz argued. "And so now the decisions that they made in their capacity as the dictators for the City of Flint can be attributable to the state of Michigan, because they were essentially the state coming in and doing what they did."
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