BENTON HARBOR — A second federal class action lawsuit has been filed against city and state officials by Benton Harbor residents concerning the high levels of lead in some of the city’s drinking water.
Benton Harbor attorney John R. Beason III, who filed the lawsuit on Nov. 20 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, said this is more than just a case to him.
“I live in Benton Harbor. My family’s here. My sister and my nieces and nephews, cousins and aunts, are all here,” said the 2002 Benton Harbor High School graduate, who returned to the city when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Beason said he has to interrupt his work most days to pick up bottled water for himself and his 88-year-old grandmother, whom he lives with.
“I’m directly affected,” he said. “It affects how I manage my business because I have to take time out in the middle of the day to go get water.”
He said he’s spoken to about 600 residents about how the water crisis is affecting them.
“After speaking to so many people, I have a pretty good idea of what people are going through, what they want,” he said.
Beason said they want more than money. He said they want the system to change so more communities aren’t faced with a water crisis.
He said his lawsuit seeks to hold city and state officials accountable for willful neglect of duty. That demand is not in the first lawsuit that was filed Nov. 10 by attorneys Alice Jennings and Carl Edwards from Detroit and Kevin Hannon from Denver, Colo.
“(City and state officials) had an obligation by law to warn the public when the water had lead in it, and they didn’t for three years,” Beason said.
He said he’s also going after city and state officials for public nuisance.
“Everybody can’t use the water,” he said. “Everybody has to go through the same nuisance of not being able to get fresh water out of their tap from the public water system.”
His initial lawsuit was filed on behalf of 17 adults and 11 children aged 8 months to 17 years. He said he filed court documents last week adding more people to the case, bringing the total to around 50. Beason said he expects to add even more plaintiffs.
“We are seeking just compensation and equitable relief, an injunction to stop water bills from being issued, trade and industrial skills training facilities to empower future residents with the skills and knowledge to prevent these catastrophic failures, as well as $500 million in compensatory and punitive damages,” he said. “The people want to see those responsible to be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
The lawsuit also claims violations of due process, disparate treatment, gross negligence, unjust enrichment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Court documents show that both cases have been assigned to Judge Janet T. Neff.
Beason said Neff will decide which plaintiffs will be the certified class to represent everybody. Then, he said she is expected to put together a panel of attorneys to represent the class.
The lawsuit was filed against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer; Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE); Eric Oswald, drinking water unit director in EGLE; Directors Robert Gordon and Elizabeth Hertel of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS); Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad; former Benton Harbor Water Plant Operator Michael O’Malley; and Benton Harbor City Manager Ellis Mitchell.
The lawsuit also names as defendants EGLE, MDHHS, Benton Harbor, Elhorn Engineering Co. and F&V Resource Management.
The initial plaintiffs are Dwayne Grant and his four children, Anthony Moorer Sr. and his three children, Shania Martin and her four children, Cherita Bynum, Diane Cole, Jasaria Chatwood, Dyondrea Grant, Donnesha Harrell, Betty J. Williams, Gloria Osby, Diane Williams, Isis Sanders, Dennis Guidry, Michael Guidry, Brenda K. Moore, John McCoy and Brian McGhee.
Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad and City Manager Ellis Mitchell were unavailable for comment.
Benton Harbor has been under an advisory for having higher-than-acceptable amounts of lead in some of its drinking water since October 2018. In February 2019, the state started giving out free water filters to filter out the lead until lead water service lines could be replaced.
On Oct. 6, state officials announced that residents shouldn’t use the city’s water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula until the filters were tested to make sure they were working effectively. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of collecting water for testing.
Whitmer later signed an executive directive that all state agencies take action to make sure Benton Harbor residents receive free bottled water and that all of the lead service lines be replaced within 18 months.