A recent class action lawsuit against the state of Michigan and several state officials will continue, despite a motion to dismiss the case completely. Michigan Court of Claims Judge Mark Boonstra has decided that the lawsuit over Flint’s lead-tainted water may continue, but only under two constitutional claims.
Judge Boonstra dismissed two claims, but allowed another two to proceed. However, the remaining two claims may only proceed under the following two constitutional claims:
- That the state failed to protect the ‘bodily integrity’ of the residents of Flint, and
- Inverse condemnation. Under this claim the plaintiffs are alleging that the state was the cause of significant decline in property values in Flint and they are seeking compensation for plumbing damage and reduced values on their homes.
In his 50 page opinion, Judge Boonstra says that the state “abused its powers” by “continuing to supply each water user with corrosive and contaminated water.” This ruling is the first major decision made by a judge with regard to the lawsuits resulting from the ongoing Flint, MI water crisis.
This particular suit was filed in January. It claims that the state and certain state officials, including Michigan Governor Snyder, both caused and then covered up a threat to public health by allowing the city to provide contaminated tap water to it’s residents. This contamination in turn resulted in numerous lead poisoning cases, and exposed many people to a host of health problems.
The contamination is the result of Flint’s 2014 switch to sourcing their water from the Flint River. The switch was made as a temporary measure while the city was under state management. But the Flint river water is 70% harder and as a result the city’s old pipe system began to corrode. As the pipes corroded, they began to leach lead into the water supply.
As if exposure to lead, which is toxic, isn’t frightening enough, the residents of Flint have had to face other scares. Their water was later revealed to be positive for E. coli and Total Coliform bacteria. Plus, there is the frightening reality that the effects of lead exposure can have significant long term effects. Long term lead exposure has been linked to increased risks of Parkinson’s and prostate cancer, along with birth defects, learning disabilities and behavioral problems.
Although state agencies and officials are usually held to be immune from legal liability when exercising governmental operations, in this case Judge Boonstra says this is different. According to the judge, because the Michigan Constitution was violated here, individuals are allowed to seek compensation for damages.
In addition, he points out that the officials being sued were sued not as individuals, but rather in their official capacity, while doing what they were authorized to do by their agency. Judge Boonstra went on to say that if the allegations made by Flint residents ended up being true, they would be “so arbitrary, in a constitutional sense, as to shock the conscience.”
Lawsuits tend to be long, drawn out affairs. Lawsuits involving government officials tend to be even more so. One only has to look at the fact that this lawsuit was filed in January of this year and we are just beginning November, to see how slow the process can be. However, it will be interesting to see how these suits pan out and whether or not the state and certain government officials end up being held accountable for their actions.