Supreme Court Decision Means Flint Residents Can Sue Over Water Crisis
City officials and state regulators argued that they had "qualified immunity" from being sued, but lower courts rejected this argument. By refusing to hear two cases related to the matter, the Supreme Court has upheld those rulings, NPR explained.
"It's time for the people of Flint to start feeling like they are going to get their day in court," lawyer Michael Pitt told Michigan Radio. "This just moves the entire process closer to that day."
Pitt is a co-lead counsel on a class action lawsuit filed by thousands of Flint residents seeking damages in the wake of the water crisis. The case which triggered the Supreme Court decision was filed by two Flint residents including mother Shari Guertin, who said she and her child were exposed to lead, Reuters reported.
The crisis began In 2014 when an emergency manager appointed by then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder switched the city's water supply to the Flint River. The improperly treated water leached lead and bacteria from the pipes, contaminating water and causing a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease. More than 25,000 Flint residents were harmed by exposure to lead or other contaminants, according to court records reported by Reuters. More than 5,000 of those individuals were children under the age of 12. No level of lead exposure, which can harm children's cognitive development, is considered safe.
Government officials at first said the contaminated water was safe, but admitted 18 months later that it was not, according to NPR. The city's water supply was finally switched to Lake Huron. The supply did not meet federal safety standards until late in 2016.
"They have been denied justice," Pitt told Michigan Radio of his clients.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had previously ruled that the officials were not immune from lawsuits.
"Knowing the Flint River water was unsafe for public use, distributing it without taking steps to counter its problems, and assuring the public in the meantime that it was safe is conduct that would alert a reasonable person to the likelihood of personal liability," the lower court ruled, as CNN reported. "Any reasonable official should have known that doing so constitutes conscience-shocking conduct prohibited by the substantive due process clause."
The officials had argued they should be immune because they could not have known they would be sued for doing the best they could with the information they had, according to Reuters.
"Allowing the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling to stand (means the Supreme Court decided the lower court's) reasoning was strong, appropriate and well-researched," Guertin's lawyer Paul Geske told Michigan Live.