Supreme Court Says Victims of Flint Water Crisis Can Sue Government Officials

By Shani Saxon Jan 22, 2020

Victims of the Flint water crisis now have a major legal victory to celebrate. On January 21, the United States Supreme Court made it possible for residents to proceed with lawsuits against state and local government officials connected to the 2014 lead-poisoned water disaster, NPR reports.

Flint government officials have maintained for several years that "qualified immunity" protects them from assuming responsibility for their part in the water crisis, according to NPR. Lower courts, however, have ruled against that argument, saying then-Governor Rick Snyder and other officials should be held accountable for their actions. The Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings by refusing to take on a pair of lawsuits that include “thousands of Flint residents suing for damages from the 2014 incident,” NPR reports. 

Per NPR, attorney Michael Pitt, co-lead counsel for the class action lawsuit, spoke to Michigan Radio reporter Steve Carmody about Tuesday’s victory. "It’s time for the people of Flint to start feeling like they are going to get their day in court," he said. "This just moves the entire process closer to that day."

According to NPR:

The initial lawsuit turned away by the high court was filed in 2016. It argues that officials, including then-Governor Rick Snyder, acted indifferently to the risk of bodily harm that residents faced when they were exposed to high levels of lead and other contaminants after the city’s drinking water source was switched to draw from the Flint River in 2014. The move was made without properly treating pipes for corrosion, letting lead and bacteria into the water supply.

In an April 2019 ruling, U.S. District Judge Judith Levy ruled that Snyder "was indifferent because instead of mitigating the risk of harm caused by the contaminated water, he covered it up. In private, he worried about the need to return Flint to [Detroit’s water system] and the political implications of the crisis. But in public, he denied all knowledge, despite being aware of the developing crisis. As a result, plaintiffs were lured into a false sense of security.”

The decision to switch water sources was detrimental—and in some cases, deadly—to Flint residents. "The result was a doubling of the percentage of Flint children with elevated levels of lead in their blood, a decrease in fertility and an increase in infant deaths as a result of the lead," Colorlines previously reported. "Twelve people died from Legionnaires’ disease linked to the toxic water, while approximately another 90 residents contracted it and lived—making it the third largest outbreak of Legionnaires’ in U.S. history.

Pitt said his clients have so far "been denied justice,” NPR reports. He added that while the Supreme Court ruling is a significant leap forward, it could take another year before a trial begins.