The Flint Water crisis is a tragic failure of government to protect the health and wellbeing of its citizens, resulting in several significant lawsuits brought by the residents of Flint against former officials of the Snyder administration. Arguably the most well known of the cases, Mays v. Snyder brings claims against the State of Michigan for the unjust taking of Flint residents’ property and violation of their right to bodily autonomy under the federal and state constitutions.
The Court’s affirmation of the lower courts’ decision to allow Mays’ lawsuit to proceed in the judicial process is notable for its potential impact on future environmental cases. Specifically, environmental harms and water contamination injuries are not typically litigated under constitutional claims. By not granting summary disposition in Mays v. Snyder, the Court has opened the door to success for similar cases in which individuals suffer exposure to environmental harms or property damage at the hands of government actors.
inverse condemnation = a constitutional claim that can be raised when the government takes one’s private property without just compensation.
due process right to bodily integrity = a constitutional claim that can be raised when the government intrudes upon an individual’s body against their will, in a manner so egregious and outrageous that it “shocks the conscience” and demonstrates deliberate indifference toward the individual’s health and safety.
summary disposition = a Court’s decision to grant judgement in a case before the case goes to trial.
Various Flint residents brought a lawsuit against Michigan state officials for damage to their health and property caused by the Flint water crisis. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the residents, led by Melissa Mays, had adequately alleged claims of inverse condemnation and violation of their due process right to bodily integrity, affirming the Court of Appeals’ refusal to grant summary disposition in favor of the state government.
In 2009, after relying on Lake Huron and Detroit water supplies for nearly 50 years, Flint and several nearby cities merged to form the Karegondi Water Authority (KWA) in a plan to explore alternative water sources. In 2013, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder authorized the Flint Emergency Manager to switch Flint’s water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River on an interim basis. Despite being aware of significant concern by local experts that the Flint River was likely an unsafe water source and Flint’s water treatment plant was unfit to treat it, Governor Snyder approved the switch to the Flint River as a water source in 2014.
Less than a month after Flint’s drinking water switched to the Flint River, residents informed state officials that the water was making them sick. In October, General Motors announced the water was corroding its machinery, and a bacterial outbreak was linked to the water supply. In February 2015, the United States EPA warned the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) that Flint’s tap water contained large amounts of heavy metals including iron, and potentially lead. No remedial action was taken, and the MDEQ lied to the EPA about its water treatment process. Instead of warning Flint residents of the danger of their water, state officials reassured residents that it was safe to drink. By the fall, the health crisis had worsened and doctors reported elevated levels of lead in Flint children’s blood. Finally, in October 2015, Governor Synder acknowledged the Flint water was contaminated and ordered a switch back to the Detroit water system. As a result of the water crisis, a group of Flint residents, led by Melissa Mays, decided to bring a lawsuit against several state agencies and officials, including Governor Rick Snyder, the MDEQ, and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
In 2016, Mays brought four claims for damage caused to both property and health as a result of the water crisis. Snyder and the state officials moved to dismiss all four claims by alleging that Mays did not file her complaints within the designated time frame and did not meet the legal standard for the case to continue. The Court of Claims held that two of Mays’ claims, one for inverse condemnation and one for violation of the right to due process for bodily integrity, met the legal standard to survive the defendants’ motion for summary disposition. On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed this decision. Snyder and Mays appealed again to the Supreme Court.
Did the Flint residents file their claims in a timely manner? If so, did they meet the legal standard for bringing a case against Governor Snyder and other state officials for inverse condemnation and violation of their due process right to bodily integrity?
In the lead opinion, Justice Bernstein, Chief Justice McCormack, and Justice Cavanagh held that the Flint residents, led by Mays, filed the claims in a timely manner and met the legal standard to bring a case for inverse condemnation and violation of their due process right to bodily integrity. However, they reaffirmed the lower courts’ holding that Mays’ other two claims did not meet the legal standards for review.
First, the Court rejected the argument that Flint residents had not brought their claims within six months of the damage occurring, a standard specified under Michigan law. The Court reasoned that Mays’s claim could not be dismissed, as it was unclear when exactly the injuries had been suffered. On this issue, Justice Markman submitted a dissent arguing that Mays failed to file the claims in a timely manner. According to his reasoning, the six month timeframe started when the water source was first switched – not when the damage to property and health occurred.
Second, the Court found that Mays satisfied the legal standard to bring an inverse condemnation claim. Mays argued that the decrease in Flint property value caused by the contaminated water and media attention to the crisis was an illegal taking of property without compensation. The Court found Mays satisfied the inverse condemnation standard by claiming that the State took a decisive action when Snyder approved the switch to the Flint River; the contaminated water caused damage to the homeowners’ water lines; and the damage suffered by Flint residents was unique compared to similar cases of municipal-water-related damages. Justice Viviano, who did not join the plurality opinion, concurred on this issue.
Finally, the Court (divided 3-3) affirmed the lower courts’ holding that Mays brought a valid claim for violation of her due-process right to bodily integrity. The Court reasoned that, because there was not enough evidence to rule out the possibility of a win for Mays, her claims could not be dismissed at this stage. Justice Viviano dissented, arguing that the right to be protected from exposure to contaminated water does not fall within the scope of the due process clause. Justice Viviano also argued that Mays’ claims did not “shock the conscience,” on the grounds that there was not enough consensus on the health risk of the Flint River to establish that state officials disregarded a known, excessive risk to the health and safety of the residents. In concurring opinions, both Justices Bernstein and McCormack strongly argued against Justice Viviano’s interpretation of Mays’s bodily integrity claim and argued that Mays’s claim demonstrated both unreasonable consequences caused by the contaminated water and fraudulent concealment by the State.
Justice Clement did not participate in the deliberation of the case due to a conflict of interest.