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As a hypothetical scenario, we assume that the events of the Flint water crisis are taking place in a location where Beis Din and Jewish law are ascendant.

Here's a quick summary of the facts:

The Flint City Council voted to switch their water supply. The State Treasurer (who had authority to prevent this) approved this switch. As a result, the cities existing water supplier terminated their contract, giving them 12 months to switch to a new water provider. The cities new supply was not yet ready (and wouldn't be for over two years), and the existing water company knew this. As a result, the city (with the approval of the Department of Environmental Quality) had to move to their backup source of water, the Flint River. The Mayor was given operating authority of the Public Works department (who overseas the water supply). Subsequently, the water was found full of contaminants including carcinogens, lead and pathogens. A year later, the previous water company offered to reconnect the city after they had forced this switch to a contaminated water source. The emergency manager (who gave the authority over the Public Works to the Mayor) declined. Later, the state government forbade reconnecting to the previous water source as a precondition of a loan to the city government.

In all, between 6-12,000 people have been affected by lead poisoning and other illnesses, 10 people have been killed by Legionnaires' disease and 77 others have been infected (this may not have been due to the contaminated water, but it's likely).

The actors:

  • The City council - chose to switch water suppliers and rejected the offers of the existing water supplier
  • The State Treasurer - the final authority in that decision
  • The original water supplier - broke their contract knowing that the city didn't have their new source in place
  • The new water supplier - whose inability to provide a stop-gap forced the switch to the contaminated backup source of water due to the early termination of the previous contract
  • The Department of Environmental Quality - the final authority on the switch to the contaminated water
  • The Mayor - responsible for the department which ensures the safety of the city water supply and turned off the old water source
  • The Emergency Manager - implemented the switch to the contaminated water and declined reconnecting to the old water supplier, believing the contamination was already fixed
  • The State - prohibited the supply of clean water to the city after the contamination had started

The citizens pay for the provision of clean and safe drinking water directly to their homes, but in this case the water was dangerous and caused harm. Which of these actors would potentially have some sort of halachic liability for the fallout of the contaminated water?

  • In retrospect, the city council and treasure couldn't be directly liable, since the contamination was an outcome of the actions of third parties - they voted to switch to the new supplier ONCE THE CONSTRUCTION WAS COMPLETE, but were forced to switch earlier due to the termination of the contract. At the time they made their decision there was no intrinsic "danger." – Isaac Kotlicky Mar 7 '16 at 14:13
  • It would seem Bava Basra would have relevance here, as it gives timelines for breaking long term contracts. One might well argue that 12 months is insufficient time to arrange for water supply, especially since the old supplier did this as a reaction to them moving to a new supplier. – Isaac Kotlicky Mar 7 '16 at 15:23
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    Just off the top of my head: "halachic liability for the fallout" would depend on dina d'garmi (miyad, b'yad, and bari hezeka of the diseases) which is unlikely to apply here to any of the actors afaict. (Bari hezeka is unlikely especially because, as you note, "this may not have been due to the contaminated water". I don't know the parameters of miyad and b'yad but would guess that they don't apply, either.) – msh210 Mar 7 '16 at 16:17
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    @msh210 The reason why I caveated the disease was because it's not absolutely proven that the water was the source of simultaneous contamination among multiple isolated individual cases. But it's clearly the most logical one. The lead poisoning is clearly damaging, absolutely happened as a result of the contamination and would need to be addressed. – Isaac Kotlicky Mar 7 '16 at 16:55

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