DETROIT – A judge awarded about $40 million Friday to the lead attorneys in a $626 million settlement for Flint residents and property owners whose water was contaminated with lead, but millions in additional legal fees will also be carved out as claimants get paid.
The decision is one of the last major rulings in a landmark deal to settle lawsuits against Flint and the state of Michigan over the failure to properly treat corrosive water from the Flint River before it flowed through pipes in 2014-15, releasing lead along the way.
Lawyers “achieved an extraordinary settlement in a case that has been intensely litigated for nearly six years,” U.S. District Judge Judith Levy said. “The fees awarded reflect their hard and persistent work.”
Legal fees and at least $7.1 million in expenses will come from the $626 million pool. Michigan is paying $600 million, while Flint, an engineering firm and McLaren Health are covering the rest of the settlement.
“Every dollar awarded to the attorneys is a dollar less for the claimants,” Levy said. “Because of this, the court must balance society’s strong interest in paying lawyers for their work and encouraging counsel to accept similar engagements in the future with the important interest in maximizing the claimants’ monetary awards.”
Flint residents are likely to net more than $400 million when fees are subtracted.
The settlement covers Flint children who were exposed to the water, adults who can show an injury, certain business owners and anyone who paid water bills. About 80% of the deal is earmarked for kids.
There is no safe level of lead. It can harm a child’s brain development and cause attention and behavior problems.
In addition to the $39.6 million awarded to the lead attorneys, Levy set a detailed schedule of what lawyers can receive when claims are paid. There is a cap of 25% in some categories.
“It was fair, it was just, it was thoughtful,” said Michael Pitt, an attorney in the long-running litigation.
John O’Connor, a San Francisco lawyer who has testified as a fee expert in more than 200 cases, said Levy's decision was fair.
“It's a very complicated formula,” he said. “This is a healthy fee award, there's no doubt about it. But the court seemed impressed with the diligence of counsel. ... These guys were taking on a big action. It took a lot of work."
Lawsuits are pending against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, McLaren and engineering firms.
Follow Ed White at http://twitter.com/edwritez