DETROIT -- Flint residents whose health and homes were harmed by lead-contaminated water scored a legal milestone Wednesday when the Michigan Supreme Court said they could proceed with a lawsuit against public officials for the disastrous decisions that caused the scandal.
“Plaintiffs in this case raise some of the most disturbing allegations of malfeasance by government actors in Michigan’s history,” Justice Richard Bernstein said.
The court's opinion was a key procedural step in long-running litigation that now will return to the Court of Claims.
The Supreme Court, 4-2, said Flint residents could pursue a claim of diminished property values. Residents also can argue that their right to bodily integrity was violated by the use of corrosive water from the Flint River.
That part of the opinion was a 3-3 tie. But it's a victory for residents because a tie under court rules affirms an earlier decision in their favor by the Michigan appeals court.
Flint used water from the Flint River in 2014-15 without treating it to reduce the corrosive effect on old pipes. As a result, lead leached into the system. Use of the river water was supposed to be a temporary measure while a pipeline was built to Lake Huron.
The lawsuit names then-Gov. Rick Snyder, two former Flint government managers appointed by Snyder and public agencies that repeatedly assured the public that the water was safe.
“Defendants have fought plaintiffs every step of the way by attempting to foreclose their lawsuit through procedural grounds. Yet, the people of Flint have endured, and they now ask for an opportunity to be heard,” Bernstein said. “The judiciary should be the one governmental institution that hears their grievances and affords them the opportunity to at least proceed with their case.”
In a dissent, two conservative justices, Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra, said the lawsuit should be stopped based on strict deadlines to file a claim. Justice Elizabeth Clement didn't participate because she was involved in Flint water legal matters as a member of Snyder's senior staff.
During arguments in March, Assistant Attorney General Nate Gambill had urged the court to rule against Flint residents.
“There is no policy maker who authorized or mandated that low-level staffers go out and expose the plaintiffs to toxic water,” he said.
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