LAPLACE – A lawsuit seeking damages alleges the cause of the brain-eating amoeba contamination that plagued St. John the Baptist Parish's water system in August 2014 goes higher up the chain of command than the two municipal water workers convicted last year of malfeasance.
Kevin Klibert, one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs suing the parish over the incident, told the Louisiana Record that two separate suits are being filed – one from residents who were forced to buy bottled water, and another from plaintiffs who claim over-chlorination as the system was flushed caused rashes and other damages.
The cases, he said, are pending as class-action suits, with what he said were “several hundred” complainants.
At issue are allegations from the state that former St. John Parish Water Works employees Kevin Branch and Danielle Roussel, who were tasked with routinely testing chlorine levels, lied about the readings. Chlorine levels must be high enough to kill organisms such as the amoeba that was later found, but low enough to not be toxic to humans.
“The purpose of testing is to make sure you’re doing your job and keeping the water safe for people to drink,” Klibert said. “In this case, what (workers) were concerned about is … that when the levels change, they have to alert the state.”
At the time of the grand jury investigation into the parish employees' role in the contamination, an attorney for Roussel said the two inspectors were instructed by their supervisors to continue taking water samples until they received a chlorine reading high enough to avoid the threshold for having to notify the state. Additional GPS evidence introduced to the grand jury also showed that Roussel and Branch were not at water testing sites at various times indicated on the testing records.
Klibert said that plaintiffs claiming injury are facing a summary judgment action by the parish, requiring them to come forward with specific medical evidence that the injuries were caused by the water system. Defendants in similar cases commonly request summary judgment as it's otherwise difficult to prove that such injuries, which in this case range from hair loss to large rashes, were caused specifically by the alleged action.
Instead, Klibert said he was more hopeful to collect damages for those who experienced economic loss in the water system outage.
As the parish worked to flush the system, which serves more than 12,000 people, schools, homes and businesses were required to purchase bottled water. He said the schools, particularly, spent a substantial amount of money protecting children.
“We’re talking about a good amount of money,” Klibert said. “Because they certainly didn’t let the kids drink out of the water fountains, so they had to bring in bottled water.”
Though Roussel and Branch are serving suspended one-year sentences, Klibert points to the administration as the main culprit in the failure to test the water. He said a lack of checks and balances on the department heads for the parish allowed a “culture of not caring” to grow. It’s a problem, he said, that might not be limited to St. John Parish.
“I think it could happen anywhere you don’t have control over your administrators,” Klibert said. “If you have a problem at the supervisor level, you’re certainly going to have a problem downstream.”