Julie Carr Smyth, AP, July 10, 2008
Residents of a mostly black neighborhood were awarded nearly $11 million Thursday by a federal jury that found local authorities denied them public water service for decades out of racial discrimination.
Each of the 67 plaintiffs was awarded $15,000 to $300,000, depending on how long they had lived in the Coal Run neighborhood, about 5 miles east of Zanesville in Muskingum County in east-central Ohio.
The money covers both monetary losses and the residents’ pain and suffering between 1956, when water lines were first laid in the area, and 2003, when Coal Run got public water.
Ohio Attorney General Nancy H. Rogers said she was pleased.
The city, county and East Muskingum Water Authority all denied discrimination. The city plans to appeal.
Coal Run residents either paid to have wells dug, hauled water for cisterns or collected rain water so they could drink, cook and bathe.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Reed Colfax described the verdict as unique among civil rights cases nationally, both in the nature of the ruling and the size of the award.
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-week trial.
“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 plaintiffs’ attorneys successfully argued that the decision not to pipe water to the plaintiffs was racially motivated, painting a picture of a community with a history of segregation. Black residents of Coal Run Road were denied water over the years while nearby white neighbors were provided it, they said.
Landes countered that about half of Muskingum County residents are not tied into the public water system even today. Among those without it are county commissioners, judges and other prominent officials, he said.
A founding member of the water authority, who served for 11 years, John Montgomery said he was flabbergasted at the verdicts. He said the authority “walked up and down Coal Run Road to get people signed up and nobody would do it.”