Out Of State Lawyers Descend On Flint, Mich., Amid Water Crisis

Apr 14, 2016
Originally published on May 4, 2016 4:11 pm
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People in Flint, Mich., are still dealing with unsafe levels of lead in their water. The crisis has attracted a certain type of professional to their town - lawyers, lots of lawyers. Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody reports.

STEVE CARMODY, BYLINE: Turn the TV on in Flint, and you'll likely hear a commercial like this.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you've tested positive for the presence of lead in your blood, experience nausea, hair loss, skin rashes or other issues after consumption of Flint River water or property damage caused by the Flint River water system, you need to call...

CARMODY: Attorneys are swarming around Flint, advertising, holding public meetings, even hosting clinics where adults and children can have their blood tested. Anyone who shows up is handed a form asking if they want a lawyer. Those who do will probably end up in a place like this - a nondescript one-story office bloc where a pop-up law firm opened earlier this month. Kansas Broadnax is here to talk to a lawyer today. He says his two daughters have been sick since Flint's water crisis started two years ago.

KANSAS BROADNAX: I don't want to keep giving my children medicine all the time. I want them to be better. And - I mean, but if they got to have it, I can't afford that stuff that - sometimes I got to go in my pocket. They need to be taking care of in a righteous fashion, and I can't do it myself.

CARMODY: Thousands of Flint residents and business owners have already signed on to about a half dozen class-action lawsuits. It's a shotgun approach. The suits seek damages from the governor, state officials, local officials, former state and local officials, even companies that consulted on the decision that ended up damaging the city's pipes that continue to leach lead into the drinking water. And then there are the individual lawsuits. One New York law firm alone has filed more than 60 on behalf of Flint children, and more are on the way.

Marc Bern is a New York City lawyer who's already signed up more than 400 plaintiffs in his suit. It accuses the governor and others of racketeering. Bern helped win nearly a billion dollars for thousands of Ground Zero workers who fell ill after cleaning up the site of the 9/11 attack.

MARC BERN: But you know what? That pales today with respect to what is happening here in Flint.

CARMODY: Bern and other lawyers are chasing what they hope to be big settlements. They're taking cases on contingency. If their clients win, the lawyers get a percentage of the settlement or judgment.

Speculating on contingency fees troubles Darren McKinney. He's with the American Tort Reform Association, a group that lobbies to limit class-action lawsuits. While he agrees injured people should get justice, he finds it unseemly all these out-of-state lawyers flocking to Flint to try to get a piece of the action.

DARREN MCKINNEY: It's just a question of which lawyers are going to get the lion's share of the contingency fee? So that's what the rush is all about.

CARMODY: Renee Knake is a legal ethicist at the Michigan State University Law School. She concedes the system isn't perfect, but at least it's a way for people in Flint to get the legal help they need.

RENEE KNAKE: I guess my larger problem as an ethicist is, what does it mean to be in a country where people with basic needs like clean water don't have legal representation to help them navigate the system when government has failed?

CARMODY: One thing most lawyers here agree on is that resolving these lawsuits could take years, perhaps more than a decade. That would mean Flint children who drank lead-tainted tap water when they were in the first grade might be set to graduate from high school by the time the legal wrangling is done. For NPR News, I'm Steve Carmody in Flint. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.