By: Melissa Mays

This op-ed originally appeared in The Detroit Free Press on 05/16/24

Ten years ago, the life of every Flint resident took a perilous turn when the city, under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, began using the Flint River as its municipal water source. 

Along with all the well-documented suffering, hardship and trauma we’ve experienced because of that fateful decision, there have been positive ripple effects we could never have foreseen flowing from our long and relentless fight for safe, affordable water.  

Those include protecting abortion rights for all Michiganders, and enabling victims of an unemployment benefits debacle to sue the state, and collect. Both of which I knew nothing about until last week, when I joined a panel discussion to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the water crisis hosted by one of Flint’s most steadfast allies, the ACLU of Michigan. 

Flint water crisis lawsuit created legal precedent  

In 2016, I became the lead plaintiff in Mays v. Snyder, a lawsuit I and others brought against the state and some individuals in an attempt to gain some compensation for all the harm done to Flint residents.  

But there was a huge obstacle we had to clear: Because of governmental immunity laws and the vast protection they provide, the odds were stacked against us being able to get a judge’s OK to even proceed with the case.  

Fortunately, our legal team had two constitutional law experts – Julie Hurwitz and the late Bill Goodman – who devised an innovative approach that relied on “due process right to bodily integrity” in the Michigan constitution to overcome claims of governmental immunity. 

We prevailed because the courts rightly saw that the city pumping poisoned water into our homes denied Flint residents that fundamental right. Allowed to move forward, the case recently settled for more than $620 million, with 80% going to children who were harmed. But the "bodily integrity" ruling so crucial to our case, I learned, has had much broader impact. 

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Flint resident and activist Melissa Mays is founder of the group Water You Fighting For and Flint Rising operations manager.