Residents of Flint, Michigan have been trying to hold government officials accountable for their contaminated water supply for years, but their attempts to file class-action lawsuits were blocked. The U.S. Supreme Court has now ruled that both state and local officials are no longer immune from facing legal repercussions for their negligence. 

The Flint water crisis started in 2014 when the city began sourcing its drinking water from the Flint River without properly treating pipes for corrosion. This resulted in the water supply being tainted by lead and bacteria, an issue that has still not been fully resolved. 

According to NPR, lower courts have been supporting victims' right to prosecute government officials for years, but Flint city officials and state regulators were arguing that they were protected by "qualified immunity" under the 11th Amendment. The first class-action lawsuit was filed in 2016, but was turned away by the high court. The Supreme Court announced on Tuesday (Jan. 21) that it is now granting permission for these lawsuits to move forward. 

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The Governor at the outset of this public health emergency, Rick Snyder, was listed among the officials targeted in the 2016 lawsuit. In an April 2019 ruling, U.S. District Judge Judith Levy ruled that Snyder "was indifferent because instead of mitigating the risk of harm caused by the contaminated water, he covered it up. In private, he worried about the need to return Flint to [Detroit's water system] and the political implications of the crisis. But in public, he denied all knowledge, despite being aware of the developing crisis. As a result, plaintiffs were lured into a false sense of security." 

"Knowing the Flint River water was unsafe for public use, distributing it without taking steps to counter its problems, and assuring the public in the meantime that it was safe is conduct that would alert a reasonable person to the likelihood of personal liability," the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals declared. "Any reasonable official should have known that doing so constitutes conscience-shocking conduct prohibited by the substantive due process clause."
Defense attorney Michael Pitt says the trial will likely only begin in 2021.