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Experts Say Lawsuit Over Flint Water Crisis Is An Uphill Battle

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, the state of Michigan and the city of Flint will argue in federal court that they should not be included in lawsuits over the Flint water crisis. This comes even though their decisions resulted in lead leaching into the city's water supply. Government officials argue they're not liable because clean water is not a constitutional right. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Let's say a private company sold lead-poisoned water to people in Flint and then delayed telling them about it for months. It's highly likely that that company would be legally liable for significant damages. But in this case, it was the city of Flint that essentially did that under the oversight of a state-appointed emergency manager. That's who approved switching the city's water source to the Flint River in 2014 to save the city money. And that could make all the difference.

PETER HENNING: The government may well have a get-out-of-jail-free card.

SAMILTON: Peter Henning is with Wayne State University Law School and says governments can claim immunity from being sued, unless the courts are convinced that what they did violated the Constitution.

HENNING: Everybody knows what happened in Flint was wrong. The question is, was there a knowing or reckless violation of the constitutional rights of the citizens of Flint? And that's a higher hurdle, and that's where the case may well founder.

SAMILTON: It's Michael Pitt's job to see that the case doesn't founder. Pitt is one of the attorneys representing some Flint residents. While he thinks his clients will prevail in the courts eventually, he says the city and state shouldn't be making people in Flint jump over these high legal hurdles. They could just do the right thing and settle the case. Pitt says more than four years after lead got into the city's water, Flint residents are still suffering.

MICHAEL PITT: I was in the home of one of our clients last week. And she pointed to the faucet, which had a filter on it. She said, as long as I live, I will never trust the water coming out of that tap.

SAMILTON: Flint switched back to buying water from Detroit's water system in 2015. Experts say Flint's water is now safe to drink. But for many residents, the repercussions from lead-tainted water will continue for years. And what happens in court today could lead either to a quicker settlement of their claims or another protracted legal battle. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WATER'S "ERIC 500") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tracy Samilton covers the auto beat for Michigan Radio. She has worked for the station for 12 years, and started out as an intern before becoming a part-time and, later, a full-time reporter. Tracy's reports on the auto industry can frequently be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on Michigan Radio. She considers her coverage of the landmark lawsuit against the University of Michigan for its use of affirmative action a highlight of her reporting career.