In 2015, the nation was horrified by the news coming out of Flint, Michigan. The small industrial city about an hour’s drive north from Detroit was poisoned by the reckless indifference of their public officials, and the contaminated water those officials allowed to course through the corroded pipes of the midwestern city. In 2014, the City switched the source of its water from the Detroit system to the Flint River as a cost saving measure. The decision was a disaster, causing the outbreak of legionnaire’s disease, and a sizable increase in the number of children whose blood tested positive for lead.
Despite the national furor over the scandal, largely nothing was done for years to help the people of Flint secure the relief they rightfully deserved. However, in 2020, a breakthrough occurred. One that may have positive legal consequences for plaintiffs who are harmed by the reckless indifference of their local governments as it relates to environmental contamination. In May of last year, the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s decision to deny “qualified immunity” to the state actors in Michigan responsible for the Flint water crisis. The Court held that Michigan officials’ conduct “shock[ed] the conscience” and that they could not avoid liability for damages using governmental immunity.
This ruling is a breath of fresh air for plaintiffs harmed by the reckless and deliberate indifference of public officials. And it stands in stark contrast to another case involving government sanctioned environmental catastrophe: the toxic clean-up of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In that case, Lombardi v. Whitman, five 9/11 rescue workers sued the EPA administrator for civil rights violations allegedly caused by the agency’s deliberate indifference to their health. The plaintiffs alleged the EPA knowingly concealed facts about the toxicity of the rubble, so that the cleanup could happen unabated. The Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of the claims under the theory that EPA officials’ decisions “did not shock the conscience.”
The Sixth Circuit’s decision, as well as the recent indictments of Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and others involved in the Flint water crisis, give hope to those environmentally harmed by the deliberate indifference of public officials. In the wake of the Sixth Circuit’s decision, the State of Michigan and the City of Flint agreed to settle with the victims for $641,000,000.
Around the country, environmental tragedies like that of Flint are occurring every day. The Sixth Circuit’s decision should give hope to those suffering due to the reckless disregard of their governmental entities and corporations.
Stag Liuzza represents individuals nationwide in the fight for clean air, water, and land. If you believe you have an environmental case, please call us for a free consultation.