In 2017, several class-action lawsuits were filed on behalf of Flint residents over the Flint water crisis, which involved dangerous levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water. U.S. District Judge Judith E. Levy consolidated the various class-action suits into one major case, In re Flint Water Cases. Flint Water Cases involves 13 claims brought by 12 people and three businesses against 27 defendants. The initial defendants included the State of Michigan and then governor Rick Snyder.
Defendants filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), challenging the court’s subject-matter jurisdiction. In August 2018, Judge Levy dismissed six defendants from the case, including Snyder and the State of Michigan, along with claims related to state-created danger, civil rights violations, and gross negligence. In the court’s opinion and order, the judge noted that sovereign immunity barred the claims against the State of Michigan.
In the initial complaints, plaintiffs asserted a bodily integrity claim against Snyder. With these type of claims, the plaintiffs must establish intent or knowledge. Judge Levy found that plaintiffs failed to establish that the governor knew that the switch to water from the Flint River would injure Flint residents and that he disregarded those health risks.
Various motions, including amendments and reconsideration requests, were filed by defendants and plaintiffs after Judge Levy issued the order in August 2018. On April 1, 2019, Judge Levy issued another opinion and order. Plaintiffs had argued that the governor acted “indifferently to the risk of harm the [plaintiffs] faced, demonstrating a callous disregard for their right to bodily integrity” with the consumption of life-threatening substances. With the additional factual allegations plaintiffs made, the judge agreed that it was reasonable to infer that the governor knew that Flint residents faced a risk of serious harm from the water. In her 128-page opinion, Judge Levy noted that qualified immunity is not available to officials if the violated rights of the plaintiffs were established at the time of the conduct. Therefore Judge Levy held that Snyder was not entitled to qualified immunity because “any reasonable official should have known that contaminat[ing] a community through its public water supply with deliberate indifference is a government invasion of the highest magnitude.” The court granted plaintiffs’ motion to amend the complaint against Snyder, adding him back as a defendant.
For a deep dive into the history of governmental immunity, absolute and qualified immunity for individuals, and exceptions to immunity, take a look at ICLE’s Governmental Immunity in Michigan.
As of June 2, 2019, Legislative leaders and Governor Gretchen Whitmer are discussing a potential settlement with Attorney General Dana Nessel.