More class action lawsuits filed against Michigan, Snyder over lead-tainted water

By Jessica Karmasek | Jan 20, 2016

DETROIT (Legal Newsline) - Three class action lawsuits now have been filed against Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and various state agencies and officials over the City of Flint’s ongoing water crisis.

This month, a group of Flint residents filed two new class actions against Snyder, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the state Department of Environmental Quality and former Flint emergency managers Darnell Earley and Jerry Ambrose, and Genesee County.

The Genesee County Circuit Court lawsuit, filed Tuesday, asks Judge Archie Hayman to enjoin the City of Flint from water shut-offs and that he declare Flint water users are not required to pay past or future bills for “useless and harmful” water.

In the Michigan Court of Claims case, filed Friday, the injured citizens seek to hold the State financially accountable for the “man-made catastrophe.”

Those class members who owned property in the city are claiming an “unjust and unconstitutional taking” of their property without fair compensation. Known as an inverse condemnation action, the State, by its actions, destroyed or impaired the property values in Flint and must be held accountable to cover the losses in property value, the lawsuit alleges.

In April 2014, Flint -- located 60 miles northwest of Detroit -- switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in an effort to save money. However, it was only supposed to be temporary until a new water line to Lake Huron could be built.

Last year, two independent studies revealed lead poisoning caused by the improperly treated water was found in the area’s population.

The new class actions focus on the conduct of the MDHHS, attorneys for the residents say.

The attorneys contend the agency had in its possession from June through September 2014 reports that indicated a dramatic increase in elevated blood lead levels of the children of Flint, and it knew that the spike correlated with the exposure to the lead-laced Flint River drinking water.

“The Department had information that there was a public health emergency yet sat of the information for more than 10 months. The lead poisoning of many of Flint’s children could have been avoided if the Department had shared with the public this vital information,” attorneys from Royal Oak, Mich., law firm Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers PC said in a statement.

The new class actions also focus on the serious harm allegedly caused by the prolonged and repeated false assurances made by public officials that the Flint River water was safe to drink and use.

The false assurances caused many people to experience serious health effects when they unnecessarily consumed toxic river water -- serious health conditions that could have been avoided by simply telling the public the truth about the toxicity of the water they were encouraged to drink, the attorneys argue.

The complaints also point out similar behavior on the part of the MDHHS in not reporting a major spike in the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. The disease is a type of rare pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria, which is found naturally in fresh water.

“Tens of thousands of Flint residents were unnecessarily injured and hundreds of millions of property damage resulted due to the deliberate indifference of a handful of state, city and county officials,” Michael Pitt, co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

“Public officials must never again be permitted to give assurances to the public about public health conditions when they know the assurances are false. Public officials must never again be permitted to ruin the lives of our children by remaining silent in the face of a public health emergency.”

Detroit law firm Goodman & Hurwitz PC, Flint firm Trachelle C. Young & Associates and the Law Offices of Deborah A. LaBelle in Ann Arbor also are representing the Flint residents.

The first class action was filed against Snyder, the State, the City of Flint, and various state and Flint municipal employees, for health and property damages resulting from their exposure, in November.

That complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, alleges that the actions of 14 current or former state or Flint municipal employees endangered the health of city residents by exposing them to toxic, lead-tainted water.

According to the complaint, the defendants’ actions “deprived Plaintiffs of life, liberty and property without due process of law when they took from Plaintiffs safe drinking water and replaced it with what they knew to be a highly toxic alternative solely for fiscal purposes.”

The complaint details the experiences of several Flint residents and families exposed to the water resulting in serious physical and psychological injuries to many of the plaintiffs. These include high levels of lead in their bloodstreams; skin lesions and hair loss; chemically-induced hypertension; autoimmune disorders; seizure-like convulsions; depression; and chronic anxiety.

The November lawsuit requests that the plaintiffs and all class members be compensated for the physical injuries and property damages resulting from their prolonged exposure to the lead-tainted water.

The 30-page complaint also asks that the State undertake a wide spectrum of future corrective action, including lifetime medical monitoring for all the children injured by the tainted water.

“Since the claims of these families are grounded in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, all provisions of the Michigan Governmental Immunity will have no bearing whatsoever on the viability and the power of these claims,” Bill Goodman, co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “These constitutional violations will be redressed by the Constitution itself and, in no way can they be held hostage to state immunity doctrines.”

Pitt said in November that the action is about holding the responsible governments and officials accountable for the catastrophe -- “which didn’t have to happen,” he noted.

Snyder has said he didn’t initially know the severity of the situation.

Once aware, he requested funding to switch the source back to the Great Lakes Water Authority and appointed an independent task force to identify possible missteps and areas for improvement.

“I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened,” Snyder said in a statement last month. “And I want all Michigan citizens to know that we will learn from this experience, because Flint is not the only city that has an aging infrastructure.”

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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Goodman & Hurwitz PC Governor Rick Snyder Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers PC

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