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Federal Judge Orders All Parties In Flint Water Case Into Mediation


Hundreds of people in Flint, Mich. have filed lawsuits over that city's lead water crisis. They're seeking damages that range from property value losses to brain damage in children. Most of the lawsuits have been consolidated into one massive case. And today, a federal district judge in Ann Arbor ordered all of the parties into mediation. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports that move could mean that victims get money much faster.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: 72-year-old Elnora Carthan noticed a change in the water in her shower right after Flint switched its water source from Detroit's system to the local Flint River in April 2014.

ELNORA CARTHAN: It had this smell to it. And after you'd dry it off, you began to itch.

SAMILTON: She developed skin lesions and other problems. When the state finally admitted the switch caused lead to leach into the drinking water, she had hers tested. One bottle came back at more than 32 times the federal standard. Carthan's blood lead level was also elevated. She became a lead plaintiff in the consolidated case against everyone from the Michigan governor and city officials to the engineering firms involved in the water switch. Carthan worries about her grandchildren, who drank the water when they visited.

CARTHAN: That's what I really be thinking about. You know, what did the lead do to the little kids?

SAMILTON: Michael Pitt is one of the plaintiff's lead attorneys. He claims the state violated people's constitutional rights.

MICHAEL PITT: Potentially a hundred thousand people or more have been affected by the state-created danger. And that is unique and that - and this case is for that reason historic.

SAMILTON: The lawsuit also charges that Michigan treated Flint differently because it's a struggling, mostly African-American city. The consolidated lawsuit is unbelievably complex. Damages could easily top hundreds of millions of dollars. Pitt says that's why court-ordered mediation is in the best interest of Flint residents. If it succeeds, a compensation fund could be set up this year.

PITT: The alternative would be to continue the litigation. And it's going to go on for decades.

SAMILTON: And litigation means older plaintiffs could die before any resolution. Lead-poisoned children could grow up to have children of their own. Mediation of this case will be by former Wayne County Chief Judge Pamela Harwood and former U.S. Senator Carl Levin. Michael Pitt hopes they can convince the defendants to settle this sprawling, complicated case as soon as possible. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.

(SOUNDBITE OF C 130'S "BROWNOUT") 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.