COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Residents of a close-knit, mostly black Ohio neighborhood that went almost 50 years without public water were awarded nearly $11 million last week 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 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 on July 10 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. All had denied discrimination.
Reed Colfax, one of the lead lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said about 25 to 30 families live in the Coal Run neighborhood about five miles southeast of Zanesville.
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. The case was not a class-action lawsuit.
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 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 the judge he intended to appeal the verdict, which took several hours to read. The county commission also plans 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. Landes had argued that about half of Muskingum County residents are not tied into the public water system even today, and county commissioners said that jurors were not permitted to hear that commissioners, judges and other elected officials are among those who still do not have public water.
“This was a case that was started and fired by out-of-town lawyers who saw an opportunity for a cash settlement,” Landes said.
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, Colfax said.
The water authority no longer exists, and the county would be responsible for paying that share of the judgment.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys will receive a separate amount to be decided by a judge at a later date, Colfax 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.
The case was filed in 2003 after the Ohio Civil Rights Commission concluded that the residents were victims of discrimination. Water lines were installed in December 2003 and January 2004, Colfax said.
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 painted a picture of a community with a history of segregation where the Ku Klux Klan had rallied as recently as 1999. Black residents of Coal Run Road were denied water over the years while nearby white neighbors were provided it, they said.
In their complaint, they detailed a trip to the county commission by resident Jerry Kennedy, whose mother lived on Coal Run for 70 years.
When Kennedy asked for public water service, according to the court filing, Muskingum County Commissioner Dorothy Montgomery said there would be no water on Coal Run “until President Bush drops spiral bombs in the holler.”
County attorneys were unable to verify the account, and Montgomery's husband, John, said that the statement is “absolutely not the truth.”
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.”
“It's just not right,” he said. “This whole thing is a farce as far as I'm concerned.”
Zanesville, roughly 50 miles east of Columbus, is a 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 and the unemployment rate in the surrounding county in May was 7.4 percent, well above Ohio's already high rate of 6.3 percent. The national unemployment rate that month was 5.5 percent.
Associated Press Writer Meghan Barr in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.