The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the way for a class-action lawsuit brought by victims of the Flint Water Crisis to move forward after justices declined to hear the cases.
Several Michigan state regulators and local government officials in Flint are at the center of a pair of suits seeking to hold them accountable for the 2014 contamination crisis that sickened thousands with toxic lead. For years, lawyers on behalf of city officials and state regulators have claimed they have “qualified immunity” from being sued in federal court by individuals, and previously called for the court to block the complaint.
Lawyer Michael Pitt, who’s representing thousands of Flint residents in the class-action lawsuit, welcomed Tuesday’s ruling as a sweet victory.
“It’s time for the people of Flint to start feeling like they are going to get their day in court,” Pitt told Michigan Radio’s Steve Carmody. “This just moves the entire process closer to that day.”
Earlier, a lower court had sided with residents.
“Knowing the Flint River water was unsafe for public use, distributing it without taking steps to counter its problems, and assuring the public in the meantime that it was safe is conduct that would alert a reasonable person to the likelihood of personal liability,” the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year.
“Any reasonable official should have known that doing so constitutes conscience-shocking conduct prohibited by the substantive due process clause,” the court added.
In refusing to hear cases involving the lead-tainted water, the Supreme Court is upholding the appeals court ruling, NPR reported. The case the justices rejected was first filed in May 2016; it accused city and state regulators of acting indifferently to the risk of bodily injury faced by residents when they were exposed to high levels of lead and other dangerous contaminants.
A switch of the city’s water source — a cost-cutting decision by state and city officials — proved disastrous after toxic lead leached into Flint’s water supply. Thousands were sickened — some reportedly with Legionnaires’ disease — and forced to rely on bottled water for everyday tasks such as cooking and bathing.
It’s been more than six years since the crisis, and Flint officials insist water lead levels are back to normal. Many residents fear their water is still not safe to drink, however.
“We have constant fear that this will never be fixed,” Flint resident and water activist Melissa Mays told CNN last year after the Michigan Attorney General’s Office dropped all pending criminal charges related to the crisis. “It’s not fair. We didn’t ask to be poisoned.”
Crews across the mid-Michigan city are still working to replace 18,000 lead and galvanized steel lines by 2020. The state of Michigan set aside $87 million for the repairs with an additional $10 million in reserve.
Attorney Pitt has said it could be another year before the start of the trial.