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COA: Flint residents can sue the state over water crisis

Protestor holding up a sign that says "Safe Water" at a Flint Water Crisis protest
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
A Flint water protest

The Michigan Court of Appeals says a lawsuit filed by Flint residents against the state of Michigan can proceed in the Court of Claims.

The Court of Claims has a six month statute of limitations. The state of Michigan said residents failed to file their claim within six months of Flint's water being switched to Flint River water.

But the Court of Appeals says it would be unreasonable to expect residents to know they were drinking lead contaminated water, especially since the state deliberately concealed the truth for months. 

The court says residents filed the claim within six months of the state publicly acknowledging the crisis.

Attorney Michael Pitt says it's a major victory for victims of the water crisis. That's because only in the state Court of Claims can the state itself be sued.

"You cannot collect money damages from the state of Michigan in federal court," says Pitt. "The state of Michigan now is on the hook, unless of course they (state attorneys) get it reversed by the Michigan Supreme Court."

If the ruling stands, the state budget could become one of the deeper pockets that attorneys could tap to create a compensation fund for people who were harmed in numerous ways when their drinking water was poisoned with lead. 

Aside from the Court of Claims lawsuit, there is an ongoing federal lawsuit against Governor Snyder, Flint's emergency managers, other officials and the engineering firms that helped Flint switch to Flint river water. Insurance companies for the engineering firms could be another significant deep pocket for the proposed compensation fund.

Other significant sources of funds for the compensation fund could come from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A separate federal lawsuit says the agency is liable due to its failure to intervene to prevent the crisis.

A spokeswoman for the state says the Court of Appeals ruling is being reviewed.

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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