The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan recently approved a $641 million settlement that will benefit thousands of Flint, Michigan residents who were harmed by lead-contaminated water.
In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the Flint water crisis, the resulting litigation, and what you can do if you’re harmed by a toxic substance.
What was the Flint water crisis?
The Flint water crisis was a public health crisis that occurred in Flint, Michigan when drinking water became contaminated with lead.
On April 25, 2014, government officials switched the city of Flint’s drinking water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department system to the Flint River in an effort to save money. However, officials violated federal law by choosing not to treat the Flint River water to ensure that it didn’t cause corrosion in the pipes.
Unfortunately, the water turned out to be highly corrosive. As a result, lead leached out from the aging pipes and into thousands of homes.
Shortly after the city of Flint began supplying residents with Flint River water, residents started complaining that their tap water smelled, was discolored, and tasted foul. Despite complaints, officials maintained that the water was safe.
A study conducted almost a year later found high levels of lead in the drinking water. In fact, some water samples showed lead levels more than 100 times the maximum contaminant level allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Government officials acknowledged the problem only after the story began garnering national attention.
Flint water litigation
In response to the Flint water crisis, which affected more than 90,000 residents, more than 100 civil lawsuits were filed against the state of Michigan, the city of Flint, McLaren Regional Medical Center, Rowe Professional Services, and several other defendants. Many of these lawsuits were consolidated into a single class-action lawsuit.
The plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit faced an immediate obstacle under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which protects the state and certain government officials from personal liability even in cases of gross negligence.
However, on April 1, 2019, Judge Edith E. Levy of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that government defendants could NOT claim sovereign immunity because they allegedly violated the residents’ bodily integrity, a protected constitutional right.
On January 21, 2021, Judge Levy approved a $641.25 million settlement.
The settlement establishes a court-monitored victims compensation fund that will provide hundreds of millions of dollars in direct payments to Flint residents impacted by the water crisis. Class members will be eligible to make claims from the compensation fund for personal injuries and property damage.
The settlement will result in the state of Michigan, the city of Flint, McLaren Regional Medical Center, and Rowe Professional Services being excused from pending civil litigation related to the water crisis. Lawsuits will be allowed to continue against other defendants who did not agree to the settlement.
Toxic tort claims
A toxic tort claim alleges that a toxic substance (such as lead) injured the plaintiff or their property.
Toxic tort claims generally arise from the following situations:
- Occupational exposure. Workers who are exposed to toxic substances at work may be able to file a toxic tort claim. The most infamous example of occupational exposure is the workers who were exposed to asbestos beginning in the 1930s.
- Pharmaceutical drugs. A toxic tort claim may arise when a consumer takes a pharmaceutical drug that is unreasonably dangerous.
- Exposure in the home. When people breathe in or ingest toxic substances in their homes (such as lead or toxic mold), a toxic tort claim might be appropriate.
- Consumer products. When people use consumer products that cause illness, a toxic tort claim might be appropriate.
There are a number of legal theories you can use to establish liability for a toxic tort claim. The most common legal theories include negligence, strict liability, private and public nuisance, and workers’ compensation.
Regardless of the legal theory used, the plaintiff in a toxic tort case needs to prove causation. In other words, the plaintiff needs to prove that the toxic substance was the cause of their injury.
Proving causation in a toxic tort case is particularly difficult for 2 reasons:
- The scientific community may not agree whether a toxic substance causes the injury at issue.
- Many exposures don’t produce any harm until years or even decades after the initial exposure.
Nevertheless, as evidenced by the Flint water settlement, toxic tort cases can be successful and victims can recover just compensation.