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Mediators will seek settlement of consolidated lawsuit over Flint water crisis

the flint river
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

In Flint, Michigan, hundreds of people have filed lawsuits over that city's lead water crisis. They're seeking damages that range from property value losses to brain damage in kids. 

Most of the lawsuits have been consolidated into one massive case. Thursday, a federal district judge in Ann Arbor ordered all the parties into mediation.

That could conceivably get money to victims much faster. 

One of the plaintiffs is 72-year-old Elnora Carthan.

She noticed a change in the water in her shower right after Flint switched its water source from Detroit's system to the local Flint River in April 2014.

"It had this smell to it, and after you had dried off you began to itch," she says.

She developed skin lesions and neurological problems. When the state finally admitted the switch caused lead to leach into the drinking water, she had hers tested. One bottle came back at more than 32 times the federal standard.

Carthan's blood lead level was also elevated.  

She became a lead plaintiff in the consolidated case against everyone from the Michigan governor and city officials to the engineering firms involved in the water switch.

Elnora Carthan worries about her grandchildren who drank the water when they visited, and other people's kids.

"That's what I'm really thinking about, what did the lead do to the little kids?" she asks.

Michael Pitt is one of the plaintiffs' lead attorneys. He claims the state violated people's constitutional rights, including the right to bodily integrity.

"Potentially 100,000 people or more have been affected by the state-created danger," says Pitt, "and that is unique and this case is for that reason historic."

The lawsuit also charges that Michigan treated Flint differently because it's a struggling, mostly African-American city.  

"Race played a significant role in the decision to provide the predominantly African-American population of Flint with unsafe river water, while at the same time the predominantly white county population stayed on safe water from Lake Huron supplied by the city of Detroit," said Pitt.

The consolidated lawsuit is unbelievably complex. Damages could easily top hundreds of millions of dollars.  Pitt says that's why court-ordered mediation is in the best interest of Flint residents.  If it succeeds, a compensation fund could be set up this year.

"The alternative would be to continue to litigation -- and it's going to go on for decades," he says.

And litigation means older plaintiffs could die before any resolution; lead poisoned children could grow up to have children of their own.

Mediation of this case will be by former Wayne County Chief Judge Pamela Harwood and former U.S. Senator Carl Levin.

Michael Pitt hopes they can convince the defendants to settle this sprawling, complicated case as soon as possible. 

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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