By Matthew Dolan, Detroit Free Press
The legal reasoning used by a judge to toss a federal lawsuit seeking damages connected to the Flint water crisis may threaten other pending cases, according to a lawyer connected to the case.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara dismissed a $150-million federal lawsuit brought by several Flint residents on behalf of thousands who claim they have been affected by contaminated water. It was based on the assumed claims of 31,000 residents who paid their bills but received water tainted by high levels of lead.
The damages sought would have compensated the victims as well as help pay for infrastructure repairs needed after Flint temporarily switched its drinking water source to the Flint River.
The switch to the Flint River from Detroit’s water system two years ago allowed more corrosive water in the system, which eventually leached lead from the water service lines. The water source for Flint was switched by in the fall of 2015.
“Plaintiffs claim that the City violated their constitutional rights and state law by providing contaminated water and requiring them to pay for it,” O’Meara wrote in his nine-page ruling.
The plaintiffs — led by Pastor Edwin Anderson and wife Alline Anderson, Epco Sales and resident Beatrice Boler — argued that the lawsuit should not be dependent on provisions in the federal safe drinking water act. That legislation allows residents to seek remedies to ensure clean water, but not damages based on a government’s past action with contaminated water.
But the judge said the federal law must be applied to the lawsuit.
“This reasoning is not persuasive: the ‘state-created danger’ the plaintiffs complained of was not “tangentially” related to safe drinking water, it is solely about safe drinking water,” O’Meara wrote.
Val Washington, a Flint attorney who among others represents the residents, said the legal team is now deciding whether to appeal the ruling. At the same time, Washington said the case may now be filed in state court, which O’Meara said was still possible in his Tuesday ruling.
Washington added that other pending suits could also be impacted by the ruling if O’Meara rules that their claims rely on the same federal law that does not include a provision to collect damages.
The lawsuit tossed on Tuesday is just one of a number seeking to compensate residents who have borne the brunt of the Flint water crisis.
At least a dozen lawsuits have been filed in local, state and federal courts on behalf of Flint residents who drank lead-tainted water for nearly two years. The complaints name a long list of state and local agencies and officials, from Gov. Rick Snyder to Flint city employees.
Some of the suits seek to hold Snyder and others personally liable for damages. They could also face criminal charges as state and federal prosecutors investigate how Flint’s water was poisoned.
Lawyers in two cases say they’re seeking multimillion-dollar awards.
But some governments have challenged those suits.
In a court filing Monday, the city of Flint asked a federal judge to dismiss a class-action against it on immunity grounds. The state of Michigan did the same thing two weeks ago in the same lawsuit.
Flint residents are seeking to hold the city and state liable for allegedly exposing them to toxic water and causing a host of health issues. They want money and the water problem fixed — though both defendants claim they’re immune from liability under the U.S. Constitution.