By Stacie Scherman
A class action lawsuit against key figures in the State of Michigan and the City of Flint is likely to ultimately include up to 30,000 households and tens of thousands of residents seeking compensations and damages from the Flint water crisis, according to attorneys representing the plaintiffs.
Those numbers are an evolving estimate of those “who have been injured physically, psychologically, whose children have been damaged, potentially irreparably,” by what has happened, according to Cary McGehee, from Pitt, McGehee, Palmer and Rivers of Royal Oak, one of three law firms involved in the case.
Lawyers from the three law firms involved in the case offered details and asked for support for the lawsuit, filed Nov. 13 with the U.S. District Court, at a recent meeting at the Northbank Center attended by about 75 people.
Four families up front
Four families — Melissa and Michael Mays, Keith John and Jacqueline Pemberton, Elnora Carthan, and Rhonda Kelso will act as class representatives in litigations.
Defendants include Governor Rick Snyder, the State of Michigan, seven employees of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), Flint Emergency Managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, the City of Flint, and three city employees.
The other two law firms involved are Goodman and Hurwitz, PC, of Detroit and Trachelle C. Young and Associates from Flint.
According to the lawsuit, available at the Flint Water Class Action website, if the case is certified as a class action, eligible members of the class will include any person who has been exposed to Flint drinking water since April, 2014, when the city switched from Great Lakes water pumped from Detroit to Flint River water.
Robert Pitt, of Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers told attendees damages from contaminated water fall into two categories: personal injury and property damage. Personal injury includes lead and other toxins in the body, rashes, hair loss, seizures, upset stomach, “brain fog,” and emotional destress. Property damage include “irreparable damage” to pipes, reduced home value, and expenses from hotel rooms and bottled water. The lawsuit claims that the four Class Representative families also experienced chemically induced hypertension, autoimmune disorder, depression, chronic anxiety, respiratory disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Constitutional rights violated, suit alleges
Bill Goodman, of Goodman & Hurwitz, explained that the case is based on the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects citizens from “state created danger.”
The lawsuit claims that the defendants violated Flint water users’ right to “life, liberty, and property” by switching the City of Flint from safe water to lead-contaminated water. The lawsuit also claims that defendants increased water users’ risk of danger by not properly testing Flint drinking water, ignoring warnings of contamination, and dishonestly reassuring residents about the water’s safety. Goodman stated that “the government can’t hurt people, hide it, and lie about it… they need to be punished for what they did.”
State “primary culprit,” City also deemed accountable
In a follow up interview, Julie Hurwitz, of Goodman & Hurwitz, said she and the other attorneys “thought long and hard” about including the City of Flint in the lawsuit, but that ultimately the city “has to be held accountable” for its part in violating constitutional rights.
However, Hurwitz explained that the state is the “primary culprit” because it was the “catalyst that set this in motion.” The city officials, under the direction and control of a state-appointed emergency manager, were “operating from a more powerless position.” However, Hurwitz explained that the city and several city officials are included in the suit because they knowingly approved decisions that prolonged Flint water users’ exposure to contaminated water.
Cary McGehee, of Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers, told attendees that the three law firms chose to file this case as a class action lawsuit because it is the most efficient way to help those injured by contaminated Flint drinking water. McGehee explained that the court would not be able to manage all of the cases if everyone filed individual claims, and that consolidating all of the claims into one class reduces total legal costs.
Legal costs would come out of settlement
McGehee added that legal costs would be paid out of the settlement, so members of the class would not have to pay anything out-of-pocket. Additionally, the class representatives would participate in the litigation process on behalf of the entire class, so individual class members would not have to actively participate in the proceedings.
However, McGehee, Pitt, and Hurwitz each repeated that the case could take years. In a follow up conversation, Hurwitz explained that before the case can move forward it has to be approved as a class action. Next, all of the eligible class members—anyone who came into contact with Flint drinking water, including Flint residents, employees, and students—will have to be identified and contacted.
Jury will decide
Hurwitz added that since this is a federal case, a jury will determine the total cost of damages and who is liable to pay. However, Hurwitz explained that the amount each defendant pays will be determined outside of the court and will involve defendants’ insurance companies and indemnification agreements. Hurwitz said that it is “going to be a mess” but added “nothing compares to the mess created by the acts of misconduct at every level.”
Melissa Mays, 37, one of the class representatives, said in a follow-up interview that even though this case will not help victims with immediate expenses, the eventual settlement could be used for long-term support like medical monitoring and special education. Mays explained that her children will experience the consequences of lead poisoning “the rest of their lives” and that she wants to “know they will be supported” and that “no other city will ever attempt… to put profits over people.”
Grass roots efforts requested
In the meantime, McGehee advised attendees to “get involved in other ways to seek justice.” Trachelle Young, of Trachelle C. Young & Associates, PLLC (Flint), encouraged audience members to continue “grass-roots efforts” like attending rallies, protests, and city council meetings. Pitt urged attendees to record experiences and preserve documents relating to personal injuries or property damage from contaminated water.
Kathryn James, with Goodman & Hurwitz, handed out instructions for preserving personal injury and “economic injury” documents. James also distributed a questionnaire asking for contact information and Flint drinking water-related damages and asked attendees to take extra copies for friends and neighbors.
More information and updates about the Flint water class action lawsuit can be found at www.flintwaterclassaction.com.
Staff writer Stacie Scherman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.