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Michigan Court of Appeals hears arguments in Flint water crisis class action lawsuit

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Flint water plant

The Michigan Court of Appeals is weighing legal arguments which may determine if a class action lawsuit against the state concerning the Flint water crisis may go forward.

The lawsuit is seeking damages from the state for Flint residents affected by decisions that created the city’s tap water problems. It’s one of many lawsuits related to the water crisis.   

The state is challenging key parts of the class action suit, including whether emergency managers appointed by the governor are actually ‘state’ officials.

“Unquestionably it is a significant amount of power,” Assistant Attorney General Nathan Gambill argued before the three-judge panel, “But that doesn’t make them state officials. Their authority is limited to only acting on behalf of local officials. That’s not statewide.”

Flint’s water source was switched while the city was under the control of an emergency manager. Water from the Flint River was not properly treated. The corrosive water damaged city pipes, which leached lead into the drinking water. The switch may have also led to a deadly Legionnaires disease outbreak that killed at least a dozen people. 

Attorneys for the state are also arguing the class action suit should have been filed earlier. The suit seeks damages tied to a period in the fall of 2015 when problems with the water supply prompted a return to water from Detroit.

Paul Novak is one of the attorneys handling the class action suit. He scoffs at the state’s assertion that Flint residents should have known earlier that there was something wrong with their tap water. Novak points to the current criminal probe that’s charged state officials with misleading Flint residents by telling them their tap water was “safe to drink” for more than a year after the ill-fated switch. 

“You tell me which time I’m supposed to believe the state and which time I’m not,” Novak told reporters after the hearing.

During the hearing in Detroit, the three-judge panel closely questioned both sides.

In the end, attorneys believe the case will likely end up before the Michigan Supreme Court.

“What’s at stake is the ability to proceed in the only form available to be able to hold this state responsible and accountable for the violation of the rights of every single resident and water user in the city of Flint,” says attorney Julie Hurwitz, who represents Flint residents suing the state.

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