The US Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear an appeal for immunity from legal action made by Flint, Michigan city officials, clearing the way for residents to sue the city and state over the infamous water crisis.
Between 2014 and 2015, hundreds of thousands of residents were exposed to drinking water that been contaminated with lead.
Lawsuits were quickly filed alleging that public officials had knowingly allowed the city’s water supply to become contaminated
Officials argued they should be immune from being sued, but the lower courts rejected the argument.
The ruling was appealed, but the nine Supreme Court justices turned away the case on Tuesday, meaning the lawsuits filed by residents can move forward.
The US Supreme Court has declined to take a case regarding the 2014 water crisis in Flint, Michigan, meaning lawsuits by residents against city and state officials will be allowed to proceed. Pictured: The Flint Water Plant tower, February 2016
In April 2014, Flint changed its drinking water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River to reduce costs during a financial crisis.
However, corrosion inhibitors were not applied to the water, allowing lead to leach from aging pipes into the water supply.
More than 100,000 residents, including as many as 12,000 children, were exposed to elevated lead levels.
Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that can accumulate in the bloodstream, settling into the bones, teeth and soft tissues and building up in the body – damaging organs and affecting the central nervous system.
Previous research has also found that lead poisoning can stunt children’s cognitive development. No level of exposure is considered safe.
In January 2015, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department offered to reconnect Flint with Lake Huron, even proposing to waive the $4million fee to restore service.
However, city officials declined, concerned about having to pay higher rates for their water down the line.
The city switched back to water from Detroit in October 2015, but the damage from the crisis was already done.
In addition to the lead poisoning, the contaminated river water had also triggered an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, which is a severe form of pneumonia caused by inhaling water droplets containing legionella bacteria.
Between June 2014 and November 2015, at least 12 people were killed by the infection and dozens of others were sickened.
Lawsuits over Flint’s water have proliferated in recent years.
According to court records, the number of people who have reported being harmed through exposure to contaminants in Flint, including lead and bacteria, or who experienced ailments such as rashes and hair loss, has reached more than 25,000, including more than 5,000 children under age 12.
The suit before the justices was filed in 2016 by two Flint residents including Shari Guertin, who said that she and her child were exposed to high levels of lead.
Residents argue their rights are being violated under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantee of due process under the law, under which people can be protected from government-induced harm to their personal security or health, a legal principle known as ‘bodily integrity.’
Flint’s water crisis and the city and state’s alleged refusal to address it amount to an abuse of power that inflicted harm and suffering on the citizens, their lawsuits claim.
Courts have previously enforced the right to confront abuses of power in cases of direct physical intrusion, such as non-consensual medical procedures or forced drug administration.
The city and state officials argued the lower courts have gone too far and don’t have the right to punish them for policy decisions that result in public exposure to environmental toxins.
They also argued they are protected from the claims through a legal doctrine known as ‘qualified immunity’ because they could not have known they could be held liable for ‘doing the best they could in difficult circumstances with limited information.’
However, a three-judge panel ruled against the officials in January, saying they had officials ‘created the Flint Water environmental disaster and then intentionally attempted to cover up their grievous decision.’
The 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals declined to take the case before it reached the US Supreme Court.
A TIMELINE OF EVENTS OF FLINT’S WATER CRISIS
APRIL 2014: In an effort to save money, Flint began drawing its water from the Flint River instead of relying on water from Detroit.
The move was considered temporary while the city waited to connect to a new regional water system.
Residents immediately complained about the smell, taste and appearance of the water.
They also raised health concerns, reporting rashes, hair loss and other problems.
SUMMER 2014: Three boil-water advisories were issued in 22 days after positive tests for coliform bacteria.
OCTOBER 2014: A General Motors engine plant stopped using Flint water, saying it rusted parts.
JANUARY 2015: Flint sought an evaluation of its efforts to improve the water amid concerns that it contained potentially harmful levels of a disinfection byproduct.
Detroit offered to reconnect Flint to its water system but city officials worried they’d be paying higher water costs.
JAN. 28, 2015: Flint residents snapped up 200 cases of bottled water in 30 minutes in a giveaway program. More giveaways followed in ensuing months.
FEB. 3, 2015: State officials pledged $2 million for Flint’s troubled water system.
FEBRUARY 2015: A 40-member advisory committee was formed to address concerns over Flint’s water.
Mayor Dayne Walling said the committee would ensure the community was involved in the issue.
MARCH 19, 2015: Flint promised to spend $2.24 million on immediate improvements to its water supply.
MARCH 27, 2015: Flint officials said the quality of its water had improved and that testing found the water met all state and federal standards for safety.
SEPT. 24, 2015: A group of doctors led by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center urged Flint to stop using the Flint River for water after finding high levels of lead in the blood of children. State regulators insisted the water was safe.
SEPT. 29, 2015: Gov. Rick Snyder pledged to take action in response to the lead levels. It was the first acknowledgment by the state that lead was a problem.
OCT. 2, 2015: Snyder announced that the state would spend $1 million to buy water filters and test water in Flint public schools.
OCT. 8, 2015: Snyder called for Flint to go back to using water from Detroit’s system again.
OCT. 15, 2015: The Michigan Legislature and Snyder approved nearly $9.4 million in aid to Flint, including $6 million to help switch its drinking water back to Detroit.
The legislation also included money for water filters, inspections and lab testing.
NOV. 3, 2015: Voters elected newcomer Karen Weaver over incumbent Mayor Dayne Walling amid fallout over the drinking water.
DEC. 29, 2015: Snyder accepted the resignation of Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant and apologized for what occurred in Flint.
JAN. 5, 2016: Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint, the same day federal officials confirmed that they were investigating.
JAN. 12, 2016: Snyder activated the Michigan National Guard to help distribute bottled, water and filters in Flint and asked the federal government for help.
JAN. 13, 2016: Michigan health officials reported an increase in Legionnaires’ disease cases during periods over the past two years in the county that includes Flint.
JAN. 14, 2016: Snyder asked the Obama administration for major disaster declaration and more federal aid.
JAN. 16, 2016: President Barack Obama signed emergency declaration and ordered federal aid for Flint, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate relief efforts.
APRIL 2016: Governor Rick Snyder hit back at critics who said he should be charged. Snyder said he believes he’s done nothing criminally wrong.
JULY 2016: Six state employees in Michigan criminally charged in connection with the case.
FEB. 16, 2017: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find the first genetic link from Legionnaire’s disease to Flint’s water supply.
JUNE 14, 2017: Attorney General Bill Schuette charges five officials with involuntary manslaughter.
MAY 10, 2018: Mayor Karen Weaver announces Nestle will donate 1.6 million bottles of water until Labor Day 2018.
JANUARY 2019: A three-judge panel ruled against state and local officials arguing they should be immune from being sued.
JANUARY 2020: The US Supreme Court rejects an appeal from the officials, allowing the residents’ lawsuits to proceed.