JURIST Digital Scholars
Federal appeals court allows lawsuit against former public officials in Flint water crisis to proceed
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Federal appeals court allows lawsuit against former public officials in Flint water crisis to proceed

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled Friday that the majority of the public officials named as defendants in the federal Flint water crisis lawsuit should remain in the case. The opinion affirms the district court’s denial of several motions to dismiss with respect to former public officials like Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Flint emergency managers Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley.

The decision stems from a massive class action lawsuit filed by citizens of Flint, Michigan, who allege that city and state officials created a public health crisis when they “caused, sustained, and covered up the poisoning of an entire community with lead- and legionella-contaminated water.” The 45-page opinion details the city’s closed-door decision to switch its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, the discovery of high levels of lead poisoning and Legionnaires’ Disease, and city/state officials’ attempted coverup amid the growing crisis.

Several of the defendant government officials argued that qualified immunity shielded them from the lawsuit. This type of immunity protects government officials from being sued for challenged conduct performed within their capacity unless it clearly violates a statutory or constitutional right. The lower district court denied motions to dismiss based on immunity.

Friday’s opinion upheld that decision. In a one-by-one analysis, the court determined that the state and city officials’ “alleged role in creating, failing to mitigate, and covering up the crisis plausibly demonstrates deliberate indifference.”

Officials ordered and set in motion the use of highly corrosive and toxic Flint River water knowing that the [treatment plant] was not ready. By January 29, 2015, State officials understood that the public health crisis was caused by the corrosion of the entire infrastructure of the Flint water system. Yet no action was taken to warn the public of the health crisis or to correct the harm.

The only exception to the court’s opinion was former Michigan State Treasurer Andy Dillion. The case against him was remanded to the district court. Dillion was not Treasurer in April 2014, at the actual time of the water source switch to the Flint River. The district court found that he “did not have authority over the switch and, therefore, that he cannot be found liable.”

Finally, the court emphasized that although Flint switched back to its previous water system in October of 2015, the crisis itself “has never ended.”