May 31, 2022
Public Justice’s 2022 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award celebrates and recognizes the accomplishments of an attorney or team of attorneys working on behalf of individuals and groups that have suffered grave injustice or abuse. Cohen Milstein had the honor of being named a “finalist” for this prestigious plaintiffs bar award for the firm’s work in In re Flint Water Cases.
Watch the video about the litigation. Read the narrative about the litigation further below.
In this consolidated class action and individual personal injury cases, the legal team worked for more than five years to expose the state of Michigan and its government employees’ role in the Flint Water Crisis, which harmed more than 90,000 residents in Flint — a historically Black and economically depressed community. This case highlights the important role of the justice system in holding government officials and corporate entities accountable and affirming they’re not immune to liability.
Historically, the city of Flint purchased safe drinking water from Detroit. However, in April of 2014, the Flint municipal government, along with state officials, including Governor Snyder, and two water engineering firms under state management, devised a plan to re-direct toxic levels of contaminated water from the Flint River into the city’s drinking water in an effort to save money, despite studies indicating that the Flint Water Treatment Plant was unable to safely treat the water for drinking. Meanwhile, the state directed superior water through the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to more affluent, white communities throughout Genesee County.
Because of this switch, more than 90,000 residents and businesses in Flint received highly toxic, lead-tainted water with concentrations of up to 880 times the EPA’s legal limit, causing the corrosion of pipes, life-threatening illnesses, and serious, long-term developmental conditions in children. Despite residents’ complaints about the water’s bad smell, color, and taste—and the July 2014 outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, which killed 12 people—state officials and the engineers failed to identify corroding water pipes as part of the cause, and instead made the problem worse by recommending that the city double the dose of ferric chloride. This highly acidic chemical compounded the corrosion problem, leading directly to the lead poisoning of Flint’s children and rendering real estate worthless.
After more than a year in which Flint residents were forced to endure the contaminated water, Governor Snyder declared a state of emergency after directing Flint to reconnect to DWSD. By January 5, 2016, President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency.
On March 31, 2016, a group of Flint residents filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan under the Clean Water Act against the state of Michigan, the city of Flint, and various city and state employees, including former Governor Rick Snyder. An amended complaint was filed on September 29, 2017, consolidating more than a dozen class and individual lawsuits and expanding the residents’ claims to include state and federal constitutional and civil rights violations and injuries caused by the Michigan government and employees involved, including denial of due process based on the bodily integrity doctrine and equal protection due to race and economic discrimination.
In August of 2018, the district court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, allowing litigation to move forward against the engineering companies, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) officials, and high-ranking state officials in Governor Snyder’s administration, while granting the motion to dismiss against Governor Snyder, with leave for plaintiffs to amend the complaint. On October 5, 2018, the legal team filed an amended complaint, arguing that Governor Snyder and his staff were fully aware of the mounting health issues, including the risks of legionella, and were even briefed on the city’s discovery of fecal coliform bacteria and pipe corrosion, which caused the problem in the summer of 2014. This also included MDEQ’s failure to investigate these claims or notify the public, lying to the EPA, discrediting outside toxicology analysis, and refusing DWSD’s offer to return Flint to Lake Huron water in January 2015.
On April 1, 2019, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to amend its fourth complaint against Governor Snyder, allowing claims against the former Michigan governor for violating Flint citizens’ “right to bodily integrity.” Additionally, the district court allowed plaintiffs to amend class definitions to include an African-American subclass and smaller subclasses based on property damage, personal injury, injunctive relief, and a set of common issues relating to liability and causation. In August of 2019, the court allowed the citizens to appoint independent counsel to advocate for each subclass. Following the district court’s decision, Governor Snyder filed multiple appeals with the Sixth Circuit, only to be denied each time.
On August 20, 2020, the state announced a preliminary settlement of $600 million. On November 10, 2021, the district court granted final approval of the settlement after more than five years of litigation and 18 months of court-supervised negotiations and a detailed victim claims process. Due to the novel class strategy granted by the district court, the plaintiffs were able to more effectively analyze and calculate settlement terms — a vital component to assessing fair financial awards given the enormity of the class and claims, and the passage of time since the initial contamination in 2014.
Flint residents can now receive long-awaited financial relief, 80 percent of which will go to individuals who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crisis, with a large majority of that money going to children aged six and younger. The remaining funds will go to special education services in Genesee County, as well as to adults, business and property owners impacted by the water crisis.
While this litigation has concluded, litigation against the national engineering firms, both charged with professional negligence, continues, as well as separate litigation against the EPA. In the fall of 2021, United States District Judge Judith Levy, certified the professional negligence case against the two private engineering firms. The class certification matter is pending trial.
While this doesn’t undo the contaminated water’s long-lasting effects on the residents exposed to the lead poisoning, this landmark settlement represents a long overdue measure of justice, affirming basic human rights to clean water and a safe environment.
TEAM: Theodore J. Leopold of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.; Michael L. Pitt of Pitt, McGehee, Palmer, Bonanni & Rivers, P.C. in Royal Oak, Mich.; Emmy L. Levens, Jessica Weiner, and Leslie M. Kroeger of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC; Cary S. McGehee, Beth M. Rivers, and Channing Robinson-Holmes of Pitt, McGehee, Palmer, Bonanni & Rivers, P.C. in Royal Oak, Mich.; Shawn Raymond, Stephen Morrissey, Jordan Connors, and Katherine Peaslee of Susman Godfrey LLP in Seattle, Wash.; William H. Goodman, Julie H. Hurwitz and Kathryn Bruner James of Goodman Hurwitz & James in Detroit, Mich.; Bradford M. Berry of NAACP in Baltimore, Md.; Deborah A. LaBelle of Deborah LaBelle Law Offices in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Paul Novak and Gregory Stamatopoulos of Weitz & Luxenberg in Detroit, Mich.; Cynthia M. Lindsey and Shermane T. Sealey of Cynthia M. Lindsey & Associates, PLLC in Detroit, Mich.; Trachelle C. Young of Trachelle C Young & Associates in Flint, Mich.; Neal H. Weinfield of Dedendum Group LLC in Highland Park, Ill.; Peretz Bronstein of Bronstein, Gewirtz & Grossman, LLC in New York, NY; Esther Berezofsky of Motley Rice LLC in Cherry Hill, NJ; Teresa A. Bingman of The Law Offices of Teresa A. Bingman in Lansing, Mich.