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Michigan Supreme Court hears arguments in Flint water lawsuit

steve carmody
Michigan Radio

The Michigan Supreme Court is mulling over whether to allowa lawsuitto move forward against the state and several former government officials tied to the Flint water crisis.

Six Flint residents filed a class action complaint alleging the state created a danger, violated residents’ bodily integrity, denied them fair and just treatment and caused a loss of property value. 

The lawsuit names former Gov. Rick Snyder, two state agencies (the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services) and two former emergency managers (Darnell Earley and Jerry Ambrose).

The state’s highest court heard oral arguments on the case Wednesday. The court is being asked to consider appeals by both sides of lower court rulings.

Attorney Julie Hurwitz represents the Flint residents who brought the lawsuit.

She laid out the case to the justices. 

“The nature of the right that we’re asserting here is not the right to clean water. It’s the right of the government not to poison us,” Hurwitz told the justices.

Attorneys for the state and the city of Flint argued the plaintiffs have other avenues to seek damages. They also questioned the legal basis of the lawsuit.

Nathan Gambill is an Assistant Attorney General. He argued before the court this week that the lawsuit is flawed.

“There has never been any kind of directive from any institution or any top policy maker or any of these state defendants that directed that the plaintiffs be exposed to toxic water. That has not happened,” said Gambill.

A few of the justices challenged the state’s contention that Flint residents have other options to seek damages.    

The justice were also interested in the state’s contention that the suit should have been filed within six months of the city’s water source being switched to the Flint River in April of 2014, long before lead and other contaminates were discovered.

Justice Richard Bernstein questioned the government’s attorney over the assertion that the plaintiffs should have filed suit sooner.

“Your folks were basically telling people this was safe,” Bernstein said from the bench, “Now you’re saying because people listened to you, (the plaintiffs) should be held accountable for the fact they didn’t act because they were listening to you.”

On the other side of the argument, Justice Stephen Markman questioned some of the constitutional claims being made by the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

“What was suffered here was a terrible harm. There’s no question about it,” Markham said from the bench, “But it needs to be understood that not every harm affected by government implicates the constitution.”

This is just one of several lawsuits in state andfederal courts seeking damages and other remedies for the Flint water crisis. 

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Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.