Flint residents press for more money in $641M water settlement

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint residents on Tuesday excoriated the lawyers who negotiated the $641 million settlement in the water crisis case, calling for the judge to toss the agreement and resume bargaining so they would get more money for their suffering.

The prospect of $202 million being diverted from victims of Flint's lead-tainted water to pay for the lawyers who have argued their cases has raised concerns among some residents and legal experts who argue the attorney fees are too much.

In remarks to the court, residents described the amount of money available to them as classic racism with a low-balled settlement.

"The people of Flint have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it was caused by structural and systematic discrimination and racism that has corroded our city, our institution and our water and their pipes for generations to come," said Carlington Dumas, the first speaker who identified himself as a former leader of the Flint NAACP.

"I want to say that this settlement is unjust, it's unfair, it borders with racism and discrimination," Dumas said. "We were kicked to the curb. We were not included in the lawsuit."

The request would account for a 32% share of the $641.25 million settlement. The attorneys have argued they had invested thousands of hours over a half-decade to achieve justice for Flint residents affected by the city's lead-tainted water. 

Connie Harris (left) of Flint holds a sign outside the Genesee County Courthouse as residents protested the proposed $202 million in fees for attorneys in the $641 million Flint water settlement on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.

The settlement includes provisions ensuring about 80% would go to individuals who were minors when exposed to the lead-tainted water, especially kids who were younger than six years old. Another 18% of the funds will go to adult claims and property damage claims, 2% will go toward special education programs in Genesee County and 1% will toward business loss claims. 

The arguments were made in front of U.S. District Court Judge Judith Levy of Michigan's Eastern District, who heard from lawyers on Monday who defended the settlement. Residents complained about their legal representation and held a Tuesday press conference outside of the Genesee County Circuit courthouse to emphasize their arguments.

Levy was joined by Genesee County Circuit Judge Joseph Farah in his courtroom to listen to the complaints of residents firsthand. Both presided over the hearing. The residents were in the courtroom to speak while attorneys sat and watched via Zoom.

One attorney, Mark Cuker, was seen by Levy slumped over and sleeping during the hearing, and she asked that his camera be turned off. Later, Cuker apologized to the court and explained that he had one hour of sleep due to an overnight flight.

Residents complained about a cap on punitive damages, arguing they deserve the maximum benefit for a lead contamination crisis that made headlines around the world. Criminal charges also are pending against nine former Flint and state officials, including former Gov. Rick Snyder. 

Flint Councilman Eric Mays told the judges that once the water switch happened, "the water was brown, people breaking out with hair loss, common sense told me something was wrong."

Mays said he's hugely disappointed in the settlement and told the judges, "I helped recruit some of these lawyers. People that I represented needed help. We needed legal help."

"And even an elected official like me, who studied (the settlement) from beginning to end, kept up with it, I never knew they would drop me like a hot potato for having an objection," Mays said. "An objection of a $1,000 cap. Now I have no representation after years. That's not fair. That's not reasonable. That's no adequate representation."

Former Flint Mayor Karen Weaver took aim at Snyder administration-appointed officials for making "a deadly decision" as residents became ill due to lead in the water and suffered "mental anguish."

"We've had to fight for the resources that we've received thus far. And now here we are begging you, we're begging this court to give us our dignity, to recognize the physical harm that has been done, the psychological trauma that has been inflicted upon us," Weaver said.

She brought up other well-known settlements such as the Larry Nassar case where his 332 victims received $500 million from Michigan State University, while Flint has to divvy up potentially over $400 million among many more thousands.

"I will tell you that it's time for Flint to receive a settlement that is commensurate or adequate to the violent crime that was done here and the damage that was done to us and the lives lost and unable to speak up for themselves," the former mayor continued.

Levy indicated that there may be limits on what the court can do even though she sympathized with the residents.

"The law is not a perfect solution," the judge said, and that "it is a solution for some problems and can make some contribution towards a solution."

"So it's my hope that the issues that you've raised today do all get addressed whether it's through this process or another process," she said.

More than 50,000 unique registrants have filed to be part of the settlement, with class action participants representing about 18% and individual litigants making up about 82% of those seeking damages. Another 21,655 individuals need additional review to determine if they are unique registrants, according to Attorney General Dana Nessel's office.

Levy gave preliminary approval to the state's $600 million settlement in January. The city of Flint, Rowe Professional Services Co. and McLaren Regional Medical Center also joined the settlement, contributing about $41 million extra. 

By August, the state is expected to begin the claims period, a 120-day window during which residents can file documents to support their claims. 

lfleming@detroitnews.com

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