Property owners seeking to hold the state of Michigan responsible for the disastrous failure of a dam in 2020 have won a critical ruling from an appeals court.
In a 3-0 opinion, the court refused to dismiss a series of lawsuits that link the Edenville Dam’s collapse to decisions by state regulators.
The court said claims of “inverse condemnation” — state-imposed property damage — can proceed.
Property owners say some blame belongs with the state, after regulators told the private owner of the hydroelectric dam on the Tittabawassee River to raise water levels in Wixom Lake, a reservoir behind the dam.
After three days of rain, the dam collapsed in May 2020, releasing a torrent that overtopped the downstream Sanford Dam and flooded the city of Midland. Thousands of people were temporarily evacuated and 150 homes were destroyed.
At this early stage of the litigation, the appeals court said it must give more weight to allegations by property owners, although the state disputes them.
The court noted a 2020 Michigan Supreme Court decision about state liability in the Flint water crisis. The state’s highest court said Flint residents could sue over decisions that ultimately caused lead contamination in the city.
“Plaintiffs allege that, after conducting a cursory inspection of the Edenville Dam in 2018, EGLE reported that the dam was structurally sound when it was not,” the appeals court said Thursday, referring to the state’s environment agency.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asked experts to study what happened at the Edenville and Sanford dams. The 2022 report said failure was “foreseeable and preventable” but could not be “attributed to any one individual, group or organization.”