Flint’s residents are building their legal case

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Jan Burgess is legally blind, but that doesn’t stop the Flint resident from playing detective when gathering evidence to document the impact the city’s corrosive water has had on her body, home and well-being.

Inside her home, next to stacks of water bottles, the 63-year-old is amassing medical records, test results, photographs, receipts and other materials to prepare for a civil lawsuit she has joined against state and local officials over the use of toxic water in Flint.

“We believed the state that the water was safe. We used it for cooking, bathing, pets. It was very stupid on our part. I don’t know what was going on in our heads. We should have known better,” she said. “I’ve developed some health problems I’ve never had before.”

Anxious for information on the case, Burgess seeks updates from a website, flintwaterclassaction.com, that was designed by a Metro Detroit legal team to educate Flint residents on how to prepare for their actual date in court.

Written by lawyers, the website explains how to preserve evidence by using a damage inventory instruction sheet and provides developments on the cases that have been filed and opportunities to volunteer by reaching others impacted by the contaminated water.

The website contains general instructions on collecting evidence and a warning: “If you do not preserve evidence or if you destroy it, you may not be able to recover damages in this case. This is a legal requirement. ... All photographs, videos, emails, text messages, water samples and documents which relate to your case must be preserved and made available to the attorneys for the parties you are suing.”

More than a dozen lawsuits have been filed in local, state and federal courts on behalf of Flint residents who drank lead-tainted water after the city switched water sources in April 2014 and drew from the Flint River. The complaints name a litany of state and local agencies and officials from Gov. Rick Snyder to Flint employees.

Nearly 4,000 Flint water users have already contacted the legal team since the first case seeking class action status was filed in U.S. District Court on Nov. 13.

The proposed class action lawsuit is likely to include up to 30,000 households and tens of thousands of residents seeking compensation and damages, attorneys on the case say.

Burgess, who agreed to be part of the lawsuit, collects water test results, keeps photos on her cellphone and scans the Internet daily for new information on the crisis. The website keeps her up to date on the court case and lets her spread information about it to her family, friends and community members.

“I go to the website all the time. I’m legally blind. It’s got nothing to do with the water,” Burgess said. “Even though I have trouble seeing, I do better on a computer than anywhere else, so I am constantly looking at the website. I’m using it to help spread information to my neighbors.”

The legal team in the Flint water crisis is expecting many documents to arrive next week from nine subpoena requests served on elected officials, state agencies and contracted businesses that communicated about using the Flint River as drinking water, the Flint water system and the Karegnondi Water Authority, which is building a pipeline to eventually service Flint residents.

So many documents are expected — attorneys on the case say in the millions — that the legal team is devising a computer database to review, analyze and index all the papers that will over the next year or more be used to build a case against those allegedly responsible for the Flint water crisis.

Julie Hurwitz and Bill Goodman, two civil rights attorneys from Detroit, are among a dozen attorneys who make up what they are calling the Flint Water Class Action Team.

Part of the process of seeking certification is gathering common claims from a sufficient number of people, Hurwitz said. But there are no hard and fast numbers to indicate when they’ve reached that point.

“There has to be a way for a court and a jury to be able to assess the damages suffered by the victims. There has to be a way to categorize their damages,” she said. “The court has to call everyone together when it’s clear they know who everyone is.”

‘Diligence and speed’

“We are trying to move with diligence and speed given the complexities in the case and the competing factors, with new information being disclosed on a daily basis. We are getting dozens of calls a day to filter and evaluate. We are shooting to get the (class action suit) certified as soon as possible.”

There is no one recipe for how this plays out, Hurwitz said.

“This case is so extensive and unique where we are alleging the poisoning of an entire municipality,” she said. “The court, I’m sure, is going to confront issues that the judge nor the players have ever confronted before.”

Hurwitz said the website is playing a significant role in connecting potential class action members with the legal team. Still, she has hired additional staff at her firm to catalog evidence and interview residents.

“It is a challenge. Most of the people who have been living this for the last two years are way ahead of the game than most people generally are. They have been fighting this process of fighting poisoned water before everyone has,” she said.

Hurwitz said she is seeking full compensation on their behalf.

“That is the challenge — coming up with a system for evaluating the monetary value of what it’s going to mean to live with the rest of their lives the consequences of being poisoned or being subjected to toxins on their skin or people suffering from neurological side effects, not from just lead but from other toxins.”

Lead is toxic to both adults and children, but is especially harmful to children because it interferes with development and could cause permanent learning and behavioral disorders.

After exposure, the metal is distributed to the liver, kidney and bones, where it accumulates over time. It also attacks the brain and central nervous system.

Melissa Mays, an activist, mother of three sons and a plaintiff in multiple cases, uses the website to help other Flint residents build their legal cases using several tools, including a damage inventory instruction sheet.

Mays herself keeps individual notebooks for each member of her family. Inside, each one has a history of all doctor visits, symptoms and test results.

Her older son, who is in junior high, is experiencing memory loss and brain fog. Her younger sons have bone pain and are missing school because of it.

The website and its tools are extremely helpful to people whose lives have been turned upside down, she said.

‘Being prepared’

“That’s the most important thing: being prepared and having people write down everything that has happened since the switch to the Flint River. This is a great way to jog the memory,” Mays said.

“That damages inventory is the most important. It covers water heaters, personal property and emotional distress. We are seeing the beginnings of PTSD up here. It’s like a war zone.”

Mays said people need money for medical care for the rest of their lives.

“The biggest thing I want is for this to be an example as to why states should never put profit over the health and well-being of their citizens,” she said. “It will cost more in the long run if they refuse to do the right thing now.”