The Flint, Michigan water crisis, is in many ways like another infamous toxic tort, The Love Canal, however unlike the 1970’s crisis where a judge ordered a $20 million settlement to be paid and residents were relocated and reimbursed for their homes, the future for Flint residents looks to be more challenging.
The Building of Lawsuits
As the residents of Flint, Michigan embark on two years of not having access to safe tap water, at least 10 separate lawsuits and several class-action suits have been filed in federal, state, and county counts. Plaintiffs are simply trying to receive compensation for lead poisoning, damages for deaths, refunds for water bills, and in some way, an omission of guilt and mistake by government officials. Even though government officials, at the state level, may be responsible for the expansive health problems, lowered property values, and overall degradation of Flint, they have “sovereign immunity”, which shields state and federal governments for lawsuits.
However, that hasn’t stopped many lawyers from fighting for their clients, although it may be a hard fight. A California environmental lawyer, John Fiske, who specializes in water-related cases, reiterates a point that the Flint water crisis is a case to fight, despite the odds, when he says: “The government is taking away life, liberty, or property without due process…what we’re seeing in the this case is that the right to clean water, especially if you’re paying for it, should not be taken away.”
A Promising Outcome?
The Flint water crisis is much like other torts, but in many ways more important. We’ve all heard of some lawsuit where a plaintiff tries to receive millions of dollars of compensation because he or she was injured by a product (but the blame is hard to place and user error may at fault), but when it comes to a basic human need like water, many people across the country are siding with Flint residents. Just like the right to have sufficient health care (an argument in many medical malpractice cases), humans have the right to have access to basic life needs without worrying about injury and death. Despite the “sound” reasoning behind the pending lawsuits, here are a few reasons why it may be difficult to receive any compensation at all:
- As mentioned above, it may be difficult to receive compensation because of “sovereign immunity”.
- Michigan officials are likely to argue that providing water to Flint residents is a “core government function”, which can further protect them from liability.
- Plaintiffs must prove that exposure to lead caused an injury or death, not just theoretically causing an impairment. Defendants can argue that a child’s failure to do well in school or sickness may not be linked to lead exposure, but rather to his or her home environment, genetic makeup, or even a mother’s prenatal care.
- Even if a plaintiff can successfully prove that lead is the cause of an injury or impairment, the defendant can fight back with questioning the source of lead poisoning, as lead can be found throughout the home.
- If plaintiffs were successful in fighting against the city of Flint, it’s not likely that residents will receive substantial compensation due to Flint’s financial crisis.
While the future for Flint residents looks less than promising, it may take years before they can seek any compensation for their claims.