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Mississippi Residents File Class Action Lawsuit Over Thousands Affected by the Jackson Water Crisis

Mississippi Governor Declares Water Emergency For State's Capital, Jackson

Jabari Omari, a Jackson city employee, talks with a resident while helping hand out cases of bottled water at a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition distribution site on Aug. 31, 2022 in Jackson, Miss. (Photo by Brad Vest/Getty Images)

Even before the onset of the crisis in late August, the water supply of Jackson, Mississippi, was “not fit for human consumption,” four residents say in a class action lawsuit against the city, its current and former mayor, officials and contractors.

“Access to clean, poison-free water is a fundamental human right,” the first line of the 100-page federal complaint declares.

“We Intend to Win”

Filed on behalf of the city’s more than 153,000 residents, the lawsuit blames the lead and contaminants in Jackson’s drinking on “decades” of neglect by officials and corporations. Their attorney Robert Gibbs, a partner at the firm Gibbs Travis, says the lawsuit aims to change that.

“We are striving to secure clean, safe water for the Jackson community – a community that has been suffering with contaminated water for years,” Gibbs said in a statement. “This is a righteous fight, and one we intend to win.”

The defendants are the city of Jackson, its current mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba; former mayor Tony Yarber; former public works directors Kishia Powell, Robert Miller, and Jerriot Smash; and contractors Siemens Corporation; Siemens Industry, Inc.; and Trilogy Engineering Services LLC.

As the lawsuit notes, Jackson’s population is 82.5 percent Black, and more than 24 percent of the people there live in poverty. The complete shutdown of the water supply last months left residents without running water.

“These residents lack more than just drinking water, or water for making powdered baby formula, cooking, showering, or laundry,” the complaint states. “During the long period where the city pipes had no water pressure—and were unable to facilitate the flow of water—residents of Jackson could not flush their toilets for days at a time.”

But according to lawsuit, the water supply that existed before the crisis had such poor quality as to violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule, and other statutes.

“Children, comprising a quarter of Jackson’s residents, are especially susceptible to the devastating and life-long damages of lead poisoning,” the complaint states. “This public health crisis, decades in the making, was wholly foreseeable by Defendants’ actions and has left Jackson residents in an untenable position – without access to clean, safe water in 2022 in a major United States city.”

“Several of Her Children Have Been Diagnosed with Lead Poisoning”

The four named residents in the lawsuit report being sickened by longtime exposure to dirty water.

Lead plaintiff Priscilla Sterling, a school teacher and grandmother who has lived in Jackson for 30 years, says she and her family are “exhibiting effects of lead-poisoning or other water contamination.”

“Several of her children have been diagnosed with lead poisoning,” the complaint states. “She suffers from headaches. Her 24-year old daughter has a learning disability and reoccurring yeast infections. The entire household has experienced frequent episodes of unexplained itching. They attempted to have their water tested for lead and other contaminants but have not been able to obtain assistance in setting up a test.”

Raine Becker, a single mother working three jobs, has a terminally ill 7-year-old son.

“We’re suffering because of the lack of leadership and planning by government officials and others,” Becker said in a a statement. Access to clean water is a basic human right, and government officials must be held accountable for their misconduct. The purpose of the lawsuit is to force them to fix the water mess, care for our community that has been put in danger, and put the right systems in place so that this never happens again.”

Shawn Miller, an engineer and student at Jackson State University, lives in the city with his wife and two minor children.

“Plaintiff and his family are exhibiting effects of lead-poisoning or other water contamination,” the complaint states. “Mr. Miller has suffered from headaches since August 2022.”

John Bennett, a self-employed yard worker, also reported that he and household are “exhibiting effects of lead-poisoning or other water contamination.”

The lawsuit alleges six causes of action, including 14th Amendment violations against the city and its officials and negligence claims against the contractors. More than half a decade since the Flint, Michigan, water crisis gripped national headlines, that litigation still rages — with a federal judge declaring a mistrial last month after a jury deadlocked in a trial against contractors.

The city declined to comment.

Read the complaint, below:

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."