The Supreme Court on Monday gave the green light to two class-action lawsuits filed by residents of Flint, Michigan, who are pursing civil rights claims against local and state officials over lead contamination in the city’s water supply.
The justices left in place a July 2017 ruling by the Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that revived the litigation after the lawsuits were thrown out by a lower court.
The high court rejected separate appeals filed by the city of Flint, Genesee County’s drainage commissioner and officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
The 6th Circuit decided that the civil rights claims brought by the plaintiffs under federal law could proceed, ruling that they were not precluded by a statute that sets the standards for drinking water, the Safe Drinking Water Act. That law has its own provisions for citizens to file suit over unsafe water, although they cannot seek monetary damages like those available under the civil rights law.
The predominantly black city of Flint switched its public water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in a cost-cutting move in April 2014. The polluted river water caused lead to leach from pipes. Lead poisoning stunts children’s cognitive development, and no level of exposure is considered safe.
The city switched back to Lake Huron water in October 2015, but lead levels remained above federal standards until early 2017.
The crisis led to several lawsuits against the city, the state, Republican Governor Rick Snyder and several individual city and state officials. Two of those suits were the subject of the Supreme Court appeals.
In one, Melissa Mays and several other Flint-based parents brought a suit in November 2015 on behalf of themselves and their children. In the other, Flint residents Beatrice Boler, Edwin Anderson and others sued in January 2016 on behalf of Flint residents and businesses.
The city and state argued that the federal claims were preempted by the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In June 2017, six current and former state and city officials were charged criminally – including five accused of involuntary manslaughter – for their roles in the crisis, which also was linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that caused at least 12 deaths.