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Snyder dismissed from Flint contaminated water class-action lawsuit

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Gov Rick Snyder, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and Michigan State Police Capt. Chris Kelenske during a news conference on Jan. 11 on the city's water crisis.

Gov. Rick Snyder and several other defendants have been dismissed from a class- action lawsuit against the state related to Flint's lead-contaminated water crisis, U.S. District Judge Judith E. Levy ruled Wednesday.

The lawsuit includes 13 claims brought by 12 people and three businesses against 27 defendants.

In her decision Wednesday, Levy dismissed at least six defendants from the case, including Snyder, the State of Michigan, former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant, Flint Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services official Nancy Peeler.

Governor Rick Snyder speaks at the Michigan Science Center in this February 22, 2018 file photo. A federal judge has dismissed a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Detroit students fighting to establish literacy is a U.S. constitutional right. Attorneys for Gov. Rick Snyder and state education officials argued no fundamental right to literacy exists and asked the judge to reject what they called an “attempt to destroy the American tradition of democratic control of schools.”

The state of Michigan is entitled to sovereign immunity, Levy wrote, and those filing the lawsuit did not prove that Snyder was aware of staff emails calling Flint River water “downright scary.”

“Plaintiffs have alleged that other defendants involved in the top-level decisions surrounding the switch to the Flint River knew of and disregarded risks to the health and safety of Flint’s water users,” Levy wrote. “But they have not made those same allegations with regard to Governor Snyder.”

Levy's ruling Wednesday took from Flint families and businesses an opportunity for justice, said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint.

"Gov. Snyder’s negligence led to the worst man-made disaster in our state’s history," Ananich said in a statement. "The fact that he is shielded from being held accountable is another crime in and of itself."

Although Levy's decision "narrowed the focus" of the lawsuit, "the heart of the case is very much alive and well," said Michael Pitt, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs seeking to set up with the lawsuit a "Flint Victims Compensation Fund" for 100,000 Flint residents affected by the water crisis..

“With this ruling, the pace of the case will pick up dramatically so that there will be no further delays in getting our clients the justice to which they are entitled," Pitt said in a statement Wednesday.

Several Flint residents sued the state in 2016, alleging that more than 20 government officials were responsible for switching the city's source of water to the Flint River knowing it was not treatable and would be dangerous to consume.

Levy consolidated 12 class-action lawsuits — stemming from Flint switching its water from Detroit's system beginning on April 25, 2014 — into one major case.

In July, Levy heard nearly six hours of testimony regarding the motion to dismiss defendants from the case.

In her decision Wednesday, Levy also dismissed claims related to state-created danger, civil rights violations, fraud, negligence and gross negligence.

In dismissing the claims of state-created danger, Levy said the case didn’t fit the claim, which requires proof that the state created or increased the risk of harm from a third party. But she acknowledged the toll the water contamination took on residents, who were “made to use contaminated water that leached lead and bacteria from old lines.”

Levy noted the water crisis in Flint remains “unresolved” and is the subject of seven pending state and federal lawsuits. 

“Litigation is prolonged, fact-dependent, and constrained by legal precedent that may be ill-suited to deal with the consequences of approximately one hundred thousand people drinking contaminated water,” the judge wrote.

After the dismissal of Snyder and several others from the case, two engineering firms and some state and city officials remain as defendants, including former State Treasurer Andy Dillon, Michigan DHHS Director Nick Lyon, former MDEQ spokesman Bradley Wurfel, and former Flint emergency managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose.

Snyder and the state’s dismissal from the class action lawsuit comes about a week after the MDEQ expressed concern about the city of Flint failing to ask for reimbursement for service line replacements.

The city had replaced roughly 6,630 of its estimated 18,000 lead service lines as of June 21 as part of an effort to upgrade the city’s infrastructure.  

Flint has tapped into only 17 percent of the hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal grant money available for the project and has not submitted any reimbursement requests for work completed in 2018.

The city said short staffing due to state-appointed emergency manager cuts is to blame for the delay, but just this week, Flint's chief financial officer Hughey Newsome refused an offer from the state to help process those reimbursement requests.

Flint officials didn't resume service line replacements until May so reimbursement requests for 2018 are only a couple of months behind, said Newsome. In the meantime, he said, the state has access to the city's share point site to view invoices for work.

The city will continue using internal resource to process its reimbursement requests since training and organizing state employees to help with the process "would take time" that the city doesn't have if it is to meet the state's August deadline, Newsome said. 

"The city is fully dedicated to meeting the Aug. 10 deadline and is putting that as top priority," he said.

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