Zanesville area residents awarded $11M in water suit


COLUMBUS - Residents of a mostly black east central Ohio neighborhood that went almost 50 years without public water were awarded nearly $11 million yesterday by a federal jury that agreed they were denied service because of their race.

Plaintiff Cynthia Hale Hairston, 47, who spent decades on rural 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 dug wells, hauled water for cisterns, or collected rain water so they could drink, cook, and bathe.

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 in failing to provide water services to the residents. All had denied discrimination.

Reed Colfax, one of the lead lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said 25 to 30 families live in the Coal Run neighborhood about five miles southeast of Zanesville.

The city of about 25,000 on the edge of the state's Appalachian region. One in every five families is below the federal poverty level.

Each of the 67 plaintiffs was awarded between $15,000 to $300,000, depending on how long they had lived in the neighborhood.

The money was intended to cover both their monetary losses and their pain and suffering between 1956, when water lines were first laid in the area, and 2003, when Coal Run got public water.

Mr. Colfax described the verdict as unique among civil rights cases nationally, both in the nature of the ruling and the size of the award.

Ohio Attorney General Nancy H. Rogers said: "This decision speaks firmly about the importance of treating citizens with equal respect, regardless of race," she said.

Zanesville attorney Michael Valentine told Judge Marbley he intended to appeal.

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.

Mr. Colfax said he was unaware of any evidence that was excluded from the trial.

The water authority must pay 55 percent of the damages, while the county owes 25 percent, and the city owes 20 percent, Mr. Colfax said.

"This was a case that was started and fired by out-of-town lawyers who saw an opportunity for a cash settlement," Mr. Landes said.

The plaintiffs' attorneys will receive a separate amount to be decided by a judge at a later date, Mr. Colfax said.

The case was filed in 2003 after the Ohio Civil Rights Commission concluded that the residents were victims of discrimination.

The plaintiffs' attorneys 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.

Mr. Landes countered that about half of Muskingum County residents are not tied into the public water system even today.