U.S. Water News Online
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Residents of a close-knit, mostly black Ohio neighborhood that went almost 50 years without public water were awarded nearly $11 million by a federal jury that agreed they were denied service because of their race.
Plaintiff Cynthia Hale Hairston, 47, who spent decades on Coal Run Road near Zanesville with her parents and grandparents wept quietly as U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley read name after name of victorious plaintiff. Families there either paid to have wells dug, hauled water for cisterns or collected rain water so they could drink, cook and bathe.
"As a child, I thought it was normal because everyone done it in my neighborhood," said Hairston, 47. "But I realized as an adult it was wrong."
After a seven-week trial, the jury found the city of Zanesville, Muskingum County and the East Muskingum Water Authority violated state and federal civil rights laws when it failed to provide water services to the residents, who lived about five miles southeast of town. All had denied discrimination.
Ohio Attorney General Nancy H. Rogers said she was pleased: "This decision speaks firmly about the importance of treating citizens with equal respect, regardless of race," she said in a statement.
Zanesville attorney Michael Valentine told U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley he intended to appeal the verdict, which took several hours to read. Valentine declined further comment.
Attorney Mark Landes, who represented the county and water district, called the verdict disappointing. He said jurors were not allowed to hear defendants' testimony that neighborhood residents were offered water service years ago and refused it.
"This was a case that was started and fired by out-of-town lawyers who saw an opportunity for a cash settlement," Landes said.
John Relman, a civil rights attorney based in Washington, D.C., who represented the residents, said the jury heard hours of testimony and saw hundreds of pages of documentation over the seven weeks.
"This verdict vindicates that this (treatment) was because of their race," he said. "The jury agreed with that and issued a verdict based on a full airing of the facts."
The case was filed in 2003 after the Ohio Civil Rights Commission concluded that the residents were victims of discrimination. They testified that the following year, water lines were installed.
Plaintiff Frederick Martin said the long wait was worth it.
He and his nine siblings shared two tubfuls of water between them on bath nights when he was growing up. He left Coal Run, built on a former coal mine, in 1970 so his children wouldn't have to endure the same living conditions, he said.
"Today I feel that we are really blessed, to know and to see justice being met," Martin said. "And to see, regardless of who we are, there is a price to pay if you discriminate against people."
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