A settlement has been reached in a wrongful-death lawsuit brought against St. Bernard Parish by the family of a young Mississippi boy who died in 2013 after contracting a rare brain-eating amoeba in Violet.
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman dismissed the case Aug. 17, saying the parties had “firmly agreed upon a compromise.” Financial terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
The boy, Drake Smith Jr., apparently contracted the Naegleria fowleri amoeba on a Slip’N Slide at a mobile home. His death triggered heavy scrutiny of Louisiana’s aging water infrastructure.
At the time, public health experts blamed low chlorine levels for contributing to the presence of the amoeba at four sites in the parish water supply, which prompted St. Bernard officials to begin flushing water lines with additional chlorine to minimize the threat.
The deadly single-celled organism has killed at least three people in Louisiana since 2011. It enters the body through the nose and makes its way into the brain. It cannot be contracted through drinking water.
Lawyers for Smith’s parents said in court filings that they believe the boy contracted the amoeba around July 17, 2013. About 10 days later, he developed a fever and nausea and began vomiting and suffering seizures. He was admitted to Tulane Medical Center’s pediatric ICU, where he died Aug. 1.
The family claims in the lawsuit that chlorination levels at St. Bernard’s water distribution plant were low, partly because of a malfunctioning valve on an ammonia tank, which was briefly shut down. “Despite being aware of the inadequate chlorination levels,” the parish “failed to notify residents,” the lawsuit says.
In response, the parish denied the valve was faulty and that its water infrastructure was affected by low pressure or contaminated by breaks or repairs.
In late 2013, the state Department of Health and Hospitals issued an emergency rule that required most water systems in the state to keep a higher level of disinfectant flowing through their water pipes. It was the first change in required chlorine levels in nearly two decades. Previous regulations had required water systems to have “trace” or “detectable” chlorine levels.
Attorneys for St. Bernard maintained in court filings that the parish was not responsible for Smith’s death.
Neither Pat Fanning, a lawyer who represented St. Bernard, or Jessica Hayes, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the family, returned messages seeking comment. Parish President David Peralta declined comment Thursday.
Last month, state health officials confirmed that the amoeba was again found in St. Bernard’s water supply after a new round of testing. As a precaution, the parish has increased chlorine levels, a plan that’s expected to remain in place for at least another month. Officials say the formula has been successful at eliminating the amoeba elsewhere.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.