Friday, July 08, 2005

Intelligent Litigation?

The Post has an article today, noting that a group of plaintiffs have dropped a law suit against the District's water utility for it's failure to address lead levels in our drinking water. For those of you unfamiliar with the issue, about two years ago it was revealed that DC water had extremely high levels of lead which exceeded EPA's drinking water standards. It turned out that our utility, DCWASA, knew this and had done little to address the issue. After this was revealed the plaintiffs in this case sued, and the utility began efforts to reduce lead levels.

As an environmentalist and a lawyer, I wonder whether the lawsuit had any effect in goading the utility into action. At the time, there was much hue and cry in the press, from Congress, from EPA, etc. With or without the litigation, I suspect that DCWASA would have responded to these political and regulatory pressures and begun reducing lead levels. If that is true, then why file the suit? Conservatives love to moan about litigation abuse, and this might seem to be a case of litigants piling on to a problem already heading towards resolution. However, if it were truly an abuse of the court system, would the litigants have dropped the case seeing evidence of DCWASA successfully remediating the lead problem? Likely not. Damages ARE damages. What, then, was the point of the litigation?

I'd like to suggest that it is a method by which citizens can ensure their voices are heard in a system which can seem unresponsive at best. Given that DCWASA had failed to address the lead problem for years, given that the DC government has a history of (less so recently) of failing to provide effective services, given that the Bush Administration has shown no great zeal in regulating environmental problems, and given that the Congress could give a flying fuck about DC residents, it isn't entirely irrational for concerned citizens in DC to want to keep their finger in the pie, so to speak. In fact, I would argue that it's perfectly rational to have expected each of the players named above to fail to uphold the public trust. The fact that they didn't does not suggest that the litigation was pointless; it merely suggests that the system may be working. Bringing the litigation was just insurance in case it didn't. So, kudos to the folks who brought the case, and kudos to them for dropping it once it became obvious that it was redundant.