Understanding the Flint Water Litigation—Defining Justice in the Parameters of the Adversarial Process

The Judges' Journal

It is hard to overstate the raw emotion and widespread feeling of injustice surrounding the Flint Water Crisis. It is clear many—if not most—residents of Flint, Michigan, feel they have been victimized by the very institutions and entities that are supposed to protect them and ensure their safety. Numerous articles and studies have concluded the Flint Water Crisis exemplifies “environmental injustice” and is, in fact, the product of years—even decades—of systemic inequity.

Against this backdrop, the lawyers and the court must address complex legal and scientific issues within the confines of our legal system and rules to determine whether there are viable legal claims and potentially the extent and nature of compensable damages. These cases present immense challenges to the legal system and to the judges who are charged with the primary responsibility of sorting through the facts, issues, and disputes in the courtroom. To the residents who feel wronged, the legal process may seem inexplicable and interminable. This is not surprising: The Flint water litigation has been proceeding for seven years and, during that time, there have been many challenging legal and procedural issues that consumed time—in both general pretrial activities and appeals. As of the date of this article, and as will be explained below, there is a substantial partial settlement and one proposed settlement—but funds have not yet been distributed to the claimants due to the number and complexity of the settlement claims. The litigation continues against the remaining defendants, with trials commencing in early 2024.

The litigation process is not necessarily ideally suited to address claims like those asserted by the residents of Flint—but it is the available mechanism. The court and the lawyers litigating this case have had to be creative, tenacious, and dedicated to managing this difficult litigation.

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"Understanding the Flint Water Litigation—Defining Justice in the Parameters of the Adversarial Process," by Deborah Greenspan was published in December 2023 edition of The Judges' Journal (Vol. 62, No. 4), an American Bar Association publication.