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Flint, MI– Flint residents called a $641.25 million water crisis lawsuit settlement a “slap in the face,” and a “middle finger,” during a hearing to determine the settlement’s fairness on July 13.
U.S. District Court Judge Judith Levy heard objections from 15 residents inside of the Genesee County Circuit Court on Tuesday from 10 a.m. to around 2 p.m., although there were more than 100 written objections submitted as well.
It prioritizes children, with 79.5% of funds allocated to minors, 15% for adults, 3% for property owners, and 2% for special education services in Genesee County, and 0.5% for business and economic loss.
Judge Levy preliminarily approved the terms of the settlement in January, giving residents a two-month window to opt in, opt out, or file objections. She began hearing objections on July 12, and will continue to do so through July 15, before she can determine whether the settlement is fair, and give it final approval.
If she decides it’s fair, the settlement will move forward. If she decides it is not fair, it may go to trial, and lawyers can try to renegotiate. But there is no guarantee that will happen, she said.
Speakers at Tuesday’s hearing told Levy this settlement was not fair for a number of reasons.
Some residents focused on the safety issues with bone lead scan tests, which have been a controversial subject in the settlement. The Napoli Schkolnik law firm has been using a scanner on their clients that the manufacturer said should not be used on humans.
At the previous hearing, Paul Napoli said the device had been modified to be used safely, and cited multiple experts assuring that the scanner was less harmful than a standard x-ray. During that hearing, one attorney and a Flint pediatrician contested that information, and called the use of the scanners “unethical,” and “unsafe.”
Multiple residents echoed those concerns at the meeting on July 13, and suggested that Flint residents were being used experimentally.
“Black folks are being used as guinea pigs,” said A.C. Dumas during his objection.
Former Mayor Karen Weaver called for Flint residents to stop being used as “experimental lab rats.”
Beyond the bone lead scans, many residents argued that the settlement wasn’t enough money for what they have gone through as a result of the water crisis.
“I took for granted that the lawyers were here to represent all the residents. …I took for granted that we’d be awarded enough to change our pipes. Foolish me,” said Diane Fletcher.
“This settlement to me, is truly next to nothing,” said Anita Smylor. “We have been given the middle finger, and we’re expected to just accept whatever is being dished out, to be thankful for being kicked in the teeth.”
Multiple speakers opposed the $1,000 cap for the homeowner category.
“How is it that anyone can come to the conclusion that $1,000 is adequate for a resident of 37 years? I paid $4,400 in the last seven years for water. I lost four pets, and paid $17,000 trying to save them,” said Virginia Murphy. “Every pipe in my home has been destroyed.”
Levy said although there was a $1,000 cap in the homeowner category, people could still make claims in other categories too.
Weaver named multiple other lawsuits with thousands fewer plaintiffs rewarded with nearly the same amount of money, including the $500 million Michigan State University settlement for 332 victims of Larry Nassar, and the $852 million University of Southern California settlement for 710 victims of a former campus gynecologist.
“But $650 million for 90,000 residents who suffered death, bodily harm, and trauma … this is not justice for Flint,” Weaver said. “We will not settle for the crumbs put before us.”
James Moore spoke about the lack of information in the community about how much money anyone can expect to get.
“Some people are saying, ‘I hope I get $1,000,’ but most people are saying, ‘I hope I get more than $1.50,’” Moore said.
Access to information, and the processes for registration and filing objections were also noted as an issue by multiple speakers.
Chris Del Morone noted that the registration forms were mailed to residents in English. While Levy said residents could have requested the forms in another language, Del Morone said this still may have posed a barrier in access for the Spanish-speaking population in Flint.
He also questioned the process for how residents were chosen to receive the forms in the mail, as many people who lived through the water crisis may have changed properties, or moved altogether.
Levy said a mailing list was compiled using multiple databases merged together, and said there were multiple radio, television, and social media advertisements for the settlement.
Del Morone said the deadlines for submitting registration forms and objections posed challenges for people too. Registration forms had to be “mailed by” March 29, while objections had to be “received by” March 29.
“Maybe there’s some compelling reason for that difference, but it makes no sense to me,” he said.
Months ago, Flint City Councilman Eric Mays worked with Flint Attorney Brenda Williams to create an objection form that allowed residents to easily file objections. Prior to that form’s creation, residents had to just submit a written objection on their own.
“Don’t be tricked by the number of people that didn’t lodge an objection,” Mays said to Levy. He said he believed there would have been many more objections if it was easier to do, and if there wasn’t a fear of being dropped by the lawyers representing them– something that happened to Mays and concerned other speakers.
Claudia Perkins-Milton and Joelena Freeman both said they were called by their legal representation and asked to withdraw their objections.
They spoke anyway, with Levy’s encouragement. She urged them to “speak their truth” and said she believed there could be an easy solution that doesn’t involve them being dropped for voicing objections.
Still, Levy explained that lawyers representing people who signed on to the settlement as well as people objecting to the settlement were faced with a conflict of interest, and could legally drop those filing objections.
Claire McClinton said although this might be legal, it doesn’t make it right. She said the same thing regarding the fact that the City of Flint needs to be a defendant in this case at all.
“This poor city forked up $20 million to join a faulty settlement. We didn’t poison ourselves. We shouldn’t be paying,” she said.
She, and several others, also spoke about the emotional harm from the water crisis.
“This community has PTSD,” McClinton said. “We’ve been poisoned, lied to, and double-crossed as it relates to getting justice.”
McClinton suggested Medicare for all impacted residents, and cited a case in Libby, Montana, where residents all got Medicare through the Affordable Care Act as a result of an asbestos-related health disaster. Other speakers also said the community needed better healthcare, and support for people suffering from physical and mental health issues as a result of the crisis.
At the end of the hearing, Levy said the speakers highlighted the limitations of the legal system.
“The law is not a perfect solution for a lot of problems,but it can make some contribution to a solution,” she said.
She told the speakers she hoped their concerns can get addressed if not through the settlement, by other means.