Lawyers consolidate Flint water class-action suit

Michael Gerstein

Attorneys for 21 law firms have filed a consolidated class-action lawsuit against two engineering firms, Flint officials and state officials including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and former state Treasurer Andy Dillon over Flint’s lead-contaminated water.

In June, Federal Judge Judith Levy in Ann Arbor ruled that Flint residents have sufficiently argued that the conduct of government officials “was so egregious as to shock the conscience” — a key legal standard. Levy ordered the lawyers to consolidate the arguments after she dismissed other parts of the lawsuit.

About 100,000 Flint residents “have experienced and will continue to experience serious personal injury and property damage caused by defendents’ deliberate, reckless and negligent misconduct,” the complaint said.

“Defendents caused a public health crisis by exposing (Flint residents) to contaminated water” and “exacerbated the crisis by concealing and misrepresenting its scope, failing to take effective remedial action to eliminate it, and then lying about it to cover up their misconduct,” it continued.

Emergency managers appointed by the Snyder administration recommended and implemented the switch of the source of the city’s water from the Detroit regional water system to the Flint River in April 2014. The corrosive river water, which was not treated with corrective chemicals, resulted in lead leaching into the drinking water.

The lawsuit argues that the engineering firms and government officials unconstitutionally did not treat the predominantly black residents of Flint the same as the predominantly white residents of great Genesee County. The suit on behalf of Flint’s 100,000 residents and other users of its water system also says the defendants acted recklessly and did not respect residents’ due process rights.

Theodore Leopold , a lead attorney in the case, said he’s pleased with the consolidation because it allows the case to proceed more quickly.

“This case has been going on way too long, and unfortunately the governor nor any of the other defendents have been willing to step up and take responsibility,” Leopold said.

The defendants “devised or acquiesced to an Interim Plan that allowed the predominately white water users of Genesee County to receive the safe superior water from DWSD and the predominately black water users of Flint would have to accept during the interim period grossly inferior, previously rejected and potentially unsafe Flint River water,” according to the lawsuit filed Friday.

Among those named in the lawsuit are the Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam and Veolia North America engineering firms, Michigan Health Human Services Director Nick Lyon, former Department of Environmental Quality Director Daniel Wyant, Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright, former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and former emergency managers Ed Kurtz, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose.

Ten of the 21 law firms are outside of Michigan.

In October 2015, Snyder accepted the findings of outside experts and ordered that Flint shut off the river water and switch back to water from the Detroit system, now known as the Great Lakes Water Authority.

The quality of the water has improved to the point that lead levels fall within federal guidelines, but people are being urged to drink only filtered or bottled water until the city’s pipes are all replaced. Flint’s City Council refuses to approve a 30-year contract with the Detroit regional water system, arguing it can find a cheaper alternative.

In late July, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed plaintiffs in one case before Levy to try to seek relief from Snyder in the form of compensation for education, medical monitoring and evaluation services for ongoing harm from Flint’s lead-contaminated water. In the other case, the appeals judges dismissed the possibility of seeking penalties for Snyder, the state of Michigan, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

All three judges -- appointed by Democratic presidents -- argued that the 11th Amendment gives the state and Snyder immunity against damages sought by private citizens.