Residents of a mostly black neighbourhood in rural Ohio in the US, denied water for decades, have won nearly $11 million as compensation for discrimination on racial grounds.
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.
AdvertisementThe 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.
The lawsuit was filed in 2003 after the Ohio Civil Rights Commission concluded the residents were victims of discrimination.
The jury in U.S. District Court found that failing to provide water service to the residents violated state and federal civil rights laws.
The water authority must pay 55 percent of the damages, while the county owes 25 percent and the city owes 20 percent, plaintiffs' attorney Reed Colfax said. The water authority no longer exists, and the county would be responsible for paying that share of the judgment.
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.
Plaintiff Frederick Martin said the long wait was worth it.
He and his nine siblings shared two tubs 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."
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.
The city, county and East Muskingum Water Authority all denied it and noted that many residents in the lightly populated county don't have public water.
Coal Run residents either paid to have wells dug, hauled water for cisterns or collected rain water so they could drink, cook and bathe.
Attorney Mark Landes said that about half of Muskingum County residents were not tied into the public water system even today. Among those without it are county commissioners, judges and other prominent officials, he said.
He also claimed that jurors were not allowed to hear defendants' testimony that neighborhood residents were offered water service years ago and refused it.
Attorney Reed Colfax, said he was unaware of any evidence that was excluded from the trial.
John Relmana, a civil rights attorney based in Washington, D.C., who also 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."
Zanesville has about 25,000 residents on the edge of the state's Appalachian region. One in every five families is below the federal poverty level, and the unemployment rate in Muskingum County in May was 7.4 percent. The national unemployment rate that month was 5.5 percent, news agency AP reports.