The ongoing water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan has precipitated a series of lawsuits filed on behalf of injured residents. The most recent claim brought on by seven families is seeking class action status for all Flint children suffering from lead poisoning caused by the city’s deteriorating pipelines. By and large, plaintiffs in these suits allege defendants were grossly negligent and deliberately indifferent when they substituted the city’s water supply with water from the Flint river. They are demanding damages from the state and its officials. Additionally, plaintiffs allege the state acted negligently in monitoring the levels of lead in the city water and acted in bad faith by assuring Flint residents the water was safe.
In 2014, the city officials stopped purchasing their water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in an attempt to cut costs. They switched the city’s water supply to the Flint river. Although the city was in the midst of an economic decline and $25 million deficit, it was historically known that the downstream water in Flint was of poor quality. After the switch, the people of Flint immediately complained about the color and smell of the water. However at the time the city insisted it was safe to drink.
The water from the Flint river was known to be polluted. However, the city failed to treat the river water with chemicals that would prevent the city’s lead pipes from leaching metal into the city’s drinking water nearly for a year and a half. Thus contaminating the drinking water.
Lead was not the only issue faced by Flint residents after the switch was initiated. At various times between 2014 and 2015, the city detected bacteria in the water and issued “boil water advisories.”. Residents were also informed that the water could contain byproducts and disinfectants that could cause cancer over time. Even then, city officials deemed the water safe for the general population. However the elderly and children were cautioned to consult doctors before drinking the tap water.
In February 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency notified the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that there were dangerous levels of lead found in homes in Flint. The governor finally discontinued the use of the Flint River water eight months later. Then the EPA established a Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force, and the city declared a state of emergency.
While a federal investigation of the city is underway, the contaminated water has drawn a number of lawsuits. The latest of which was filed on March 7, 2016 by seven families, including about twenty children. Plaintiffs are demanding a jury trial for their claims. These are that exposure to lead and other toxic substances present in the Flint water caused physical and psychological injuries. This is including permanent learning disabilities, weight loss, stunted growth, emotional distress, and loss of income.
Children are especially vulnerable to lead exposure. Even a small amount can stunt growth and cause lifelong educational and behavioral problems. One family in the suit has three children – aged five, eight and twelve – who are allegedly suffering from the effects of lead poisoning. Subsequent to the change in water source, the five year old was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Their mother states, “I don’t know how the rest of my kids’ lives are going to play out because of how high their lead levels are.”. She claims that the children suffer from hair loss, rashes, inability to focus, and are now more prone to anger.
This is not the first class action seeking damages for injuries caused by the toxic water. On November 13, 2015, four families filed a federal class-action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against the state governor and thirteen other state officials. The families claim the government’s behavior was shocking to the conscious and grossly negligent. Government officials are generally shielded from suits related to the performance of their official duties. However these specific claims by the plaintiffs would help overcome this immunity.
The governor’s administration estimated a cost of $55 million for repairs to about 15,000 damaged lead pipes. The residents demanded that the city replace all lead service lines at no cost to residents. Hoping that judicial intervention would force the state into action, the residents filed a federal lawsuit on January 27, 2016. They alleged violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act for failure to treat the Flint water for corrosion, test it for lead, and notify residents of the results. They demand that the city replace all lead service lines, provide safe drinking water to residents, and follow federal regulations for water control.
In response, the city of Flint has taken out a $25 million loan to remove the pipes. The governor, in a recent statement, said “I will fix this crisis and help move Flint forward. Long-term solutions are what the people of Flint need and what I am focused on delivering for them.”
Environmental health and safety is at the center of this litigation. Expert witnesses may be consulted on water and waste treatment, toxicology, and environmental assessments in order to buttress plaintiff’s arguments that the city was negligent. Attorneys for the families claim to be screening at least nine hundred more clients to join the suit. As investigations against the state develop, more class actions may be filed with substantially similar allegations. This will cause the court to consolidate or decide which lawyers should represent the class moving forward.