Lawsuit Stemming from the Flint Water Crisis Can Proceed
The class action lawsuit against Flint for the widespread contamination of the city's water supply has now cleared a key legal hurdle and can proceed further in court. The Michigan Supreme Court issued a ruling that allowed to file a lawsuit against the state for its acts in connection with the crisis that crippled the city.
The Flint Water Crisis began in 2014, after the city, in coordination with the State of Michigan, switched the water source for the city to the Flint River. However, the pipes used to carry the water were aging and corroded. The city failed to use the proper corrosion inhibitors, leading to lead in the water supply. The city continued to claim that the water was safe, even after residents noticed discolored water. Even though Flint eventually switched back to its original water source, there was permanent damage to residents' homes along with negative health effects from drinking contaminated water. As a result, Flint residents filed a class action lawsuit against the city and state.
The Main Grounds of Lawsuit Are for Property Damages and Bodily Integrity Violations
Normally, the state cannot be sued for monetary damages for actions that public officials take in their public capacities. However, there are certain circumstances under which they can be sued. Here, the plaintiffs brought several claims arising from the Flint water crisis. The lawsuit alleged that the city's actions caused the value of their property to drop. The plaintiffs further alleged that their bodily integrity was violated by the city's decision to switch water sources.
The Supreme Court was hearing an appeal brought by the state, which had appealed an earlier ruling at the trial court level that dismissed part of the lawsuit. However, the crux of the claims survived at the circuit court level, and the defendants were trying to get the rest of the cases dismissed. The Michigan Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's decision, which allows the lawsuit to proceed.
One of the specific grounds in the lawsuit was for inverse condemnation. As opposed to outright condemning the property through some sort of public action, the state is alleged to have taken an action that hurt the property values. In order to successfully plead the claim, the plaintiffs needed to show some sort of physical damage to their property. The Supreme Court held that the damage to the physical pipes was enough to count. In addition, the fact that their property values took a major hit because the Flint real estate market collapsed due to the crisis.
The Plaintiffs Alleged an Abuse of Power that Would Allow Their Claims to Survive
However, the mere fact that the government took action that hurt property values would ordinarily not be enough for a successful lawsuit. The plaintiffs would need to allege some type of abuse of power and an affirmative action taken against their property. Here, there are allegations of an abuse of power through allegations that the government allowed the Flint River to be used as an interim source of water, despite knowledge of the potential harm along with alleged misrepresentations to coverup evidence of harm. At this stage, it does not matter which defendant engaged in the conduct.
With regard to the claim of violation of bodily integrity, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs alleged enough for the lawsuit to proceed. In Michigan, this claim arises when there is a nonconsensual entry into the body that does not serve a legitimate government purpose. Here, the government defendants are accused of taking actions that allowed for the entry of contaminated water into the bodies of the plaintiffs in a manner that could harm them. Here, there would be no legitimate governmental purpose that would be served by poisoning citizens. The bodily integrity claim would require some sort of affirmative government action that goes beyond negligence. The facts alleged by the plaintiffs were sufficient to allow these cases to proceed.
The Michigan Supreme Court's decision does not mean that this legal saga is over yet. It only means that the lawsuit can continue to proceed. Now, it heads back to the lower courts after the Supreme Court ruled that the lawsuits do not need to be dismissed. Michigan potentially faces a massive damages verdict considering the widespread harm that Flint residents suffered from the water crisis. The damage to their homes may never be fixed, and they are at risk after having used and ingested contaminated water.
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