Flint’s recent water crisis has resulted in a deluge of lawsuits that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for Michigan taxpayers.
According to Wayne State University law professor and former prosecutor Peter Henning, the only “deep pocket” near Flint is the State of Michigan. The crisis could therefore become a tax liability for Michigan citizens. “This is the worst nightmare,” he said, “when bureaucracy goes completely off the rails because widespread harm.”
In 2014, the city of Flint switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. Designed to save the city money, the switch was executed without adding corrosion controls to the water, causing lead to reach residents’ water.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality admitted that it made a mistake. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is under attack for waiting months to get a legal opinion on whether corrosion control was required, even when it knew of the high lead levels in the city’s water.
Injured Flint residents have filed dozens of lawsuits in various Michigan courts. The cases claim Flint’s contaminated water decreased property values and damaged household appliances while also causing medical issues ranging from rashes and hair loss to psychological problems like depression and anxiety. Listed defendants include a number of state and local agencies and officials, including Governor Rick Snyder.
Some of the lawsuits aim to hold Governor Snyder and others officials personally liable for damages. Michigan officials might also be subject to criminal charges, pending state and federal investigations on the water poisoning.
The lawyers in two cases have indicated that they want multi-million dollar rewards. One case consists of suing a Flint hospital for victims of Legionnaires’ disease for $100 million. The other is seeking at least $500 million from an engineering company that Flint hired to implement its water treatment plant, using water from the Flint River. The complaint alleges that the company knew of and concealed the fact that the water would be dangerous without proper treatment. It seeks damages for lowered property values.
Other lawsuits seek damages ranging from replaced pipes to medical monitoring and health care, court-ordered monitoring of the city’s water operations, water bill refunds from the point when the water supply became undrinkable, and punitive damages against various defendants. One suit does not seek monetary damages but instead asks the court to force Flint to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act and to replace the lead service lines in Flint.
A Wayne State law professor who specializes in environmental law indicated that Michigan’s ideal solution would be to do what BP did after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 — establish and finance a victims’ compensation fund. The U.S.’s largest oil spill, the BP oil disaster killed 11 crew members, leaked millions of barrels of crude oil, and covered hundreds of miles of shoreline.
Like those injured by the Deepwater Horizon crisis, the residents of Flint need help, such as health care, medical monitoring, and replaced pipes. A victims’ compensation fund could have the added benefit of keeping damaging information from being exposed in court.
The BP fund, which was managed by a Washington-based attorney, paid out $6.5 billion and processed $1.2 million in economic damages claims. The same attorney administered the Congress-created victims’ compensation fund following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Experts believe Michigan is better off accepting responsibility for the water crisis and shifting the focus to how to mend the situation, such as by compensating victims and preventing future crises. The worst strategy, experts believe, is for the state to fight the cases in a court of law. While victims’ funds may not prevent all lawsuits, they could convince some victims to drop suits. The lawsuits, experts believe, are well-pleaded and will be extremely costly to the state.
Personal injury lawyer Kelly Neumann at the Neumann Law Group represents victims of accidents throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.
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