St. Bernard Parish may be near a settlement with the family of a young Mississippi boy who died in 2013 after contracting a rare brain-eating amoeba at a home in Violet — an incident that triggered heavy scrutiny of much of Louisiana’s aging water infrastructure.
Public health experts contended at the time that insufficient chlorine levels likely contributed to the presence of the amoeba in parts of the parish’s water supply.
The boy, Drake Smith Jr., apparently contracted the Naegleria fowleri amoeba on a Slip ’N’ Slide at a mobile home.
The rare brain-eating amoeba turned up at four sites in the parish’s water supply later in 2013 — including at the Violet home — which prompted the parish to begin flushing its water lines with additional chlorine to minimize the threat of the single-celled organisms.
That lasted for months. By early 2014, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals said sampling from nearly a dozen sites in St. Bernard had turned up no signs of the amoeba, which has killed at least three people in Louisiana since 2011.
It cannot be contracted by drinking water, only if it enters the body through the nose and is pushed into the brain.
The wrongful-death lawsuit, filed in federal court in New Orleans by Smith’s family, had been set for trial this week, but both sides recently agreed to a six-week delay as settlement talks continue.
Any decision on a settlement or paying a judgment would first need to be approved by the St. Bernard Parish Council, which is slated to meet Tuesday and to discuss the lawsuit in an executive session.
Attorneys for Smith’s parents say he likely contracted the deadly amoeba around July 17, 2013. About 10 days later, he had a fever and nausea, was vomiting and suffering seizures, and was admitted to Tulane Medical Center’s pediatric ICU. He underwent extensive testing and died Aug. 1.
The lawsuit, which seeks more than $75,000 in damages, was filed in December 2013. The boy’s hospital stay cost almost $330,000, according to the suit.
In late 2013, state health officials issued an emergency rule that required most water systems in the state to maintain a higher level of disinfectant, the first change in required chlorine levels in nearly two decades. Since then, the amoeba also has been found in treated water in St. John the Baptist Parish as well as in DeSoto Parish in northwest Louisiana.
The new regulation increased the minimum disinfectant level to 0.5 milligram per liter of water throughout any parish water system, an amount believed to be effective in controlling the amoeba. Earlier regulations had required water systems to have merely “trace” or “detectable” levels of chlorine.
Pat Fanning, an attorney representing St. Bernard in the case, argued in court filings that the parish is not responsible for Smith’s death.
Attorneys for the boy’s family allege that chlorination levels at the parish’s water distribution plant were low, due in part to a malfunctioning valve on the ammonia tank, which briefly had to be shut down. “Despite being aware of the inadequate chlorination levels, defendant (St. Bernard) failed to notify residents ... about the severely low levels of chlorine residuals,” the family’s lawsuit contends.
Being able to show that the parish knew about the problem yet failed to act could be key if the case goes to trial, according to one courtroom observer.
“You would have to prove that the parish knew or should’ve known that the problem existed and they had an opportunity to correct it,” said Baton Rouge attorney Vincent DeSalvo, who is not associated with the case.
In response, the parish has denied that the ammonia tank’s valve was faulty, or that the parish’s aging water infrastructure was affected by low water pressure or suffered from contamination due to breaks or repairs.
Parish officials insist they were unaware of any issues until after the boy’s death and that they did not hold back on informing the public of any potential concerns.
Jessica Hayes, a New Orleans attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the family, said they learned about the faulty valve through parish records and in depositions with parish workers. “It came up pretty frequently,” she said.
Hayes said the faulty valve wasn’t a long-term issue, but that it “happened basically around the couple weeks preceding Drake’s death,” and was eventually fixed over a couple days.
But she said the valve problem wasn’t likely the smoking gun that led to the spread of the amoeba.
“From our side, we would say it was a lot of things going on in St. Bernard Parish culminating in just a difficult process for water treatment,” she said, alluding to the parish’s steep population decline in the years since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
If a settlement isn’t reached in the next few weeks, Hayes expects the case could still go to trial this summer. “Just knowing bureaucracy, I would say that it’s still very much a possibility that it will go to trial,” she added.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.