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Landmark Flint water crisis settlement grows to $641.2M as it moves to court

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

A landmark settlement in the Flint water crisis came a step closer to reality Tuesday, when attorneys in the class-action lawsuit presented the agreement to a federal court with an additional $41.2 million. 

The $641.25 million settlement, if approved by the court, would largely go to victims of the water crisis that emerged after Flint residents learned their drinking water had been contaminated with lead after a source switch to river water in 2014.

"After years of hard-fought litigation and extensive negotiations, plaintiffs have reached an agreement to resolve claims against the state of Michigan and other settling defendants that would result in a court-monitored Qualified Settlement Fund of more than $640 million," lawyers wrote in their filing.

Katia Kenney, 18 of Flint, volunteers as she loads cases of water into vehicles as non-profit Pack Your Back distributes more than 37,000 bottles of water on Monday, April 22, 2019, at Dort Federal Event Center in Flint.

They wrote that it's an "excellent result," especially when considered "against the time and costs of continued litigation" and the fact that many defendants are allowed to use a qualified immunity defense. That's a judicial doctrine that shields government officials from personal liability for constitutional violations.

The city of Flint, McLaren Regional Medical Center and city contractor Rowe Professional Services Co. signed on since the state and attorneys reached an agreement in the summer.

"We are pleased that we are able to take another step towards providing the Flint community and residents a measure of justice," said Ted Leopold of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, one of the leaders of a group of attorneys representing Flint residents in the case. "While this can never undo the damage that has been done, it is essential that those who are responsible for the reckless behavior that led to this crisis are held accountable."

Judge Judith Levy of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan will review the agreement. If she signs off on the proposed settlement, Flint residents can begin applying for a portion of the funds. 

If approved, people would be eligible for a portion of the money if: 

  • They owned or lived in a home that received water from the Flint Water Treatment plant or were required to pay for the water between April 25, 2014 to Nov. 16, 2020.
  • Owned or operated a business that received water from the Flint Water Treatment plant over the same dates.
  • Ingested or came into contact with water from the treatment plant for at least 21 out of 30 days during "the Exposure Period."
  • Were exposed to water from the treatment plant and were diagnosed with Legionnaires' Disease between April 25, 2014 and Dec. 31, 2018.

Residents would have 60 days to apply and an additional 120 days to file paperwork showing they qualify, the attorneys said in a statement Tuesday night.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel praised the move Tuesday night as necessary next steps to bring justice to Flint residents. 

“Without this settlement, which makes affected children a top priority, Flint residents would have been provided little assurance that their claims would be successful in court, and ongoing litigation could have prolonged their hardships for years," Nessel said in a statement. "Resolving these legal disputes against the state, and now the other defendants who have joined the settlement, is the best possible outcome for Flint’s future.”

The state of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, former Gov. Rick Snyder and other individual defendants are also parties in the settlement.

The lawsuit consolidates hundreds of individual cases taken out against defendants in recent years after city officials switched the city's water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River in April 2014. The highly corrosive Flint River water leeched lead from the pipes because it wasn't treated with corrosion control chemicals. Flint switched back to Detroit's water in October 2015, but only after many residents were exposed to the contaminated water.

The settlement, described as a "hybrid structure" in the court filing to account for children, adults and property owners and businesses, proposes that nearly 80% of the settlement go to children who were under the age of 7 when they were exposed. Potentially thousands of children were exposed to toxic levels of lead.

Some of the money will go to special education services in Genesee County to “enable the local school districts and public school academies within the Genesee Intermediate

School District to provide special education services" to students who lived in Flint during the exposure period and require services as a result, the filing indicated.

In addition, 15% of funds will go to adult claims, 3% for property damage and 0.5% toward business losses, according to the filing. 

“While no amount of money will heal the wounds inflicted on this community, we are glad to see more entities step up and take responsibility,” said Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley in a statement.

Others were not enthusiastic about the settlement.

Flint City Councilman Maurice Davis said he believed many more people should be included in any deal since the water crisis impact is widespread and ongoing.

“It’s a long ways from being satisfactory,” he said Tuesday night. “The residents still are suffering with no answer.”

Nessel's office estimated that if the settlement is approved, it will be the largest in state history. It's unclear exactly how much each claimant will receive and will depend on the number of people who are approved to receive funds. 

It also depends on how much of the money will go to the attorneys who negotiated the settlement on behalf of Flint residents. That number that will be proposed by the lawyers within 30 days of the judge's preliminary approval of the deal and is subject to approval by the court. 

Compensation amounts for those making claims will be based on the type and extent of injuries, the filing said, "and in some cases the proof they are able to provide of their injuries." A claims administrator would review registration claim forms to determine eligibility. A reconsideration and appeals process also would be provided, the filing said.

If the settlement is finalized, it will give the state liability against future suits over the water crisis, and any person who accepts settlement funds would lose their ability to pursue further legal action against the state government or past officials, including Snyder.

One of the lead attorneys representing Flint residents said while announcing the case in August that it's not perfect, but it's "very good" and "in the best interest of the Flint community."

Lawsuits against the engineering firms that advised the state and city during the crisis — Veolia North America and Lockwood, Newnam & Andrews — continue.

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.

rbeggin@detroitnews.com