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Out-of-town lawyers flow into Flint, filing water crisis lawsuits

Apr 14, 2016

Flint residents continue to deal with unsafe lead levels in their water. Another group is paying very close attention. Lawyers. Lots of lawyers.

Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Turn the TV on in Flint and you’ll likely hear a commercial with a very specific question. 

“If you’ve tested positive for the presence of lead in your blood, experienced nausea, hair loss, skin loss or other issues after consumption of Flint River water or property damage caused by the Flint River water system., you need to call ..." and at that point the announcer gives the name and contact information for a New York law firm.

Attorneys are swarming around Flint – advertising, holding public meetings and 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 local local law office.

At a nondescript, one-story office block, where a pop-up law office opened earlier this month, Kansas Broadnax was waiting to talk to a lawyer.   

He says his two young daughters have been sick since Flint’s water crisis started two years ago.

“I don’t want to keep giving my children medicine all the time. I want them to be better.  But if they got to have it, I can’t afford that stuff," says Broadnax. "They need to be taken care of in a righteous fashion. I can’t do it myself.”

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 damaged the city’s pipes and 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.    

“But you know what?  That pales today with respect to what is happening here in Flint," Bern told reporters when he announced his Flint water class-action lawsuit. 

Bern and other lawyers are chasing what they hope will 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 into Flint to try to get a piece of the action.

“It’s just a question of which lawyer is going to get the lion’s share of the contingency fee. That’s what the rush is all about," says McKinney. 

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

“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 where government has failed," says Knake. 

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.