Lawyers suing over Flint’s contaminated drinking water want a fund established to compensate more than 100,000 victims of a public health crisis that they insist government officials and two engineering firms created and then covered up.
The demand for a victim compensation fund came in a consolidated complaint filed on Sept. 29 against government officials, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, and the engineering firms that conducted studies on the water’s safety. It’s the first complaint to be filed after U.S. District Judge Judith Levy of Eastern District of Michigan consolidated nine class actions over the Flint, Michigan, water crisis in the Eastern District of Michigan.
The next status conference is Oct. 25.
Theodore Leopold, a partner in the Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, office of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Washington, D.C., a lead plaintiffs’ attorney in the case, said the fund would compensate victims for a wide array of costs, such as education, medical monitoring and property damages.
“We have various damage models that lend themselves not only to the personal injury side but property damages and business claims,” he said. “A special master can help evaluate those claims and appropriately both disperse the funds that would go to a variety of people based on the types of claims they have.”
Leopold is one of four attorneys Levy named in July to be lead counsel for the plaintiffs. On Sept. 29, those lawyers filed a motion to add an executive committee to the plaintiffs’ team. The committee members would be: Stephen Morrissey, a Seattle partner at Susman Godfrey; Weitz & Luxenberg managing attorney Paul Novak in Detroit; Esther Berezofsky of Berezofsky Law Group in Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Peretz Bronstein, founding member of New York’s Bronstein, Gewirtz & Grossman; and Teresa Bingman of the Law Offices of Teresa A. Bingman in Okemos, Michigan.
“LAN [Lockwood Andrews & Newnam Inc.] sympathizes with all who were affected by issues relating to the Flint water supply, which has resulted in a number of lawsuits, some of which name LAN as a defendant,” said Drinker Biddle & Reath partner Wayne B. Mason. “Given that the allegations in these lawsuits mischaracterize LAN’s role for the City of Flint, the facts surrounding the treatment of water from the Flint River and LAN’s responsibilities under its contracts with the city and industry standards, the firm will continue to vigorously defend its position in court.”
Government officials in 2014 temporarily shifted Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, despite studies warning that its corrosive nature could risk lead from old pipes leaching into the drinking water. Lawsuits over the crisis have slogged through the courts, mostly stuck in jurisdictional disputes. Hundreds of individual cases have been brought on behalf of residents with medical problems or property damages, while class actions have focused on professional negligence against the engineering firms and constitutional and consumer fraud claims against government officials.
Some of the Flint cases have been dismissed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit revived two class actions in July after finding that the constitutional claims—such as allegations that the contamination racially discriminated against predominantly African-American communities—weren’t pre-empted by the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. http://www.law.com/sites/almstaff/2017/07/28/class-actions-revived-in-flint-water-contamination-case/ An American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan case reached a settlement in March under which government officials agreed to spend up to $97 million to replace lead pipes.
But the consolidated action aims to combine all the remaining claims, Leopold said.
“They’re all part of the case, and we intend to litigate all of them quite vigorously and look forward to finally getting this litigation up and running,” he said.
The complaint was brought by 10 individuals who claim the contaminated water caused skin rashes and E. coli, property damage to water pipes and a decline in home values. In one case, a man alleged that his 83-year-old father died from pneumonia after contracting bacteria from the contaminated water. Two businesses in Flint have joined the complaint, suing for property damages and lost business.
Named as defendants are two engineering firms and 18 current and former government officials, most of whom have been criminally charged.
In addition to a compensation fund, the complaint seeks punitive damages and property repairs.
Although no lawyers have been named in the case, the complaint references an email from Valerie Brader, former deputy legal counsel to the governor, describing the crisis as it began to unfold in 2014. According to the complaint, she wrote to senior officials in Snyder’s office: “Now we are getting comments about being lab rats in the media, which are going to be exacerbated when it comes out that after the boil water order, there were chemicals in the water that exceeded health-based water quality standards.”
Snyder’s then-legal counsel, Michael Gadola, who is now a judge on Michigan’s Court of Appeals, called the use of the Flint River “downright scary” and advised officials to “try to get back on the Detroit system as a stopgap ASAP before this thing gets too far out of control.”
The defendants’ responses to the complaint are due Dec. 1.
Amanda Bronstad can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.