Flint Water Crisis: Where Can They Go From Here?

Before 2016, a large part of America never heard of Flint, Michigan. The city was one of the largest manufacturers of cars. It was once the base for the company GM and made most of the company’s Buick and Chevrolet models. But eventually the factory closed, and soon Flint became better known for its high crime and poverty.

Now, Flint is the city where the water supply is contaminated from the old lead pipes directing water to the public. An estimated 6,000 to 12,000 citizens are severely poisoned with toxic levels of lead in their blood.

A simple financial choice to switch to a cheaper water supply left so many of its residents severely ill or disabled. What can the residents do now? Is there any legal action they can take?

Can the Citizens of Flint Take Legal Action?

Yes, they can, and they did. Twice.

A class action suit filed on November 13, 2015. It claims that 14 city officials are responsible for replacing the safe water with “dangerous…and…inadequately treated” water. They ask for injunctive and declaratory relief as well as monetary damages.

The November Class Action claims that the 14 city officials violated the citizen’s substantive due process by removing safe water while under authority from the law.  Lead Water

A second class action suit was filed on January 27, 2016 against city officials. It asks the court to order city officials to replace all lead pipes in the city and follow federal requirements for drinking water. They also ask for equitable relief to help with health and medical care due to the contaminated water.

There are now two class action suits filed because of the Flint Water Crisis. But will they succeed?

They May Win, But Filing A Class Action Is Only The Beginning And May Not Be Enough.

In order for a class action suit to go forward, the class must be certified, or approved, by the judge. The judge can refuse to certify the class for many reasons. It may take at least a year or more for a class to be certified, or the class may never be certified.

A class action may take years to resolve and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most class actions end with a settlement. Attorney’s fees may reduce the amount the class will receive, depending on the nature of the settlement.

Despite the limits of a class action suit, it is the best option for the citizens of Flint. If the classes are certified, then the class action suits will probably settle. The class will receive whatever they requested for relief and any monetary relief must be spread among the entire class.

But the class may have upwards to 12,000 individuals. So each class member may receive a substantially smaller amount than if they pursued a claim individually. But even if they wanted to, the people of Flint cannot sue the state. Government officials are immune to torts stemming from negligence due to sovereign immunity.

If It Feels Unsatisfying, It’s Because It Is

Its good public policy to protect lawmakers and government officials from lawsuits arising from best intentions.

The decision to switch the city’s water supply was in good faith. But what unsettles the nation is how officials waited and ignored the lethal amount of lead. It was only addressed when its damaging effects were undeniable. Now, an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 children are affected by the contaminated water. They will need comprehensive treatment and may face a lifetime of behavioral and cognitive disorders.

For the people of Flint, whatever amount they receive does not change the fact that effects of the Water Crisis will live on in its children. Even after 20 years, the impact will be evident in its residents.

Monetary damages can be awarded based on loss of future earnings and the cost of living with a disability. They look at the victim’s age, extent of injuries, earning capacity, loss of income, and impact on the life of the victim. But for compensation in a class action, the court will not be able to examine each effected resident. Instead, each resident may be treated as more or less suffering the same amount of damages.

In the end, the residents of Flint will need to rely on the government that has failed them. They must wait and hope that the City of Flint, Genesee County, and the State of Michigan will help them recover from a fatal error.

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