New Brunswick

Are you in or out? West Saint John residents must decide on class-action over water woes

West Saint John residents who don't want to participate in a class-action lawsuit against the city over leaking pipes and other problems allegedly caused by a change in their water source will need to opt out.

Lawsuit against city springs from leaking pipes allegedly caused by switch in water source

Frances Brownell, left, and Cheryl Steadman are the two plaintiffs named in the recently certified class-action lawsuit against the City of Saint John on behalf of west side residents. (Connell Smith, CBC)

West Saint John residents who don't want to participate in a class-action lawsuit against the city over leaking pipes and other problems allegedly caused by a change in their water source will need to opt out.

Otherwise, affected residents will automatically be considered part of the West Side Water Class Action, according to notices being distributed in mailboxes this week.

"If you remain in the class, then you give up the right to sue the city, independent of the class," said Cheryl Steadman, one of the representative plaintiffs. "So you have one or the other, you can't benefit from both suits."

To opt out, residents must fill out and submit the form attached to the notices, she said.

Any west sider who suffered damage and wishes to remain part of the class doesn't need to do anything — other than wait for the outcome, which could take more than a year, said Steadman.

'If there is a successful outcome for us, then you share in any possible benefits."

The lawsuit, launched in February 2018, springs from a move by the city to switch the west Saint John water source from the Spruce Lake Reservoir to a collection of drilled wells in the South Bay area as part of the Safe Clean Drinking Water project.

Shortly after the approximately 5,600 customers were switched over to the groundwater source in September 2017, many began to complain of leaking copper pipes and costly water damage.

Other complaints have included failed appliances, such as dishwashers, washing machines and hot-water tanks, as well as irritated skin.

Steadman said she had bleeding sores on her face, which she'd never experienced before.

"Once I heard that other people were mentioning similar things, I can only tie it back to the water change."

A consultant's report, submitted to city council earlier this year, found the change in the water source to alkaline-based hard water from soft and acidic weakened the scaly material that had built up over decades in the pipes, which eventually caused leaks.

The sediment was all that was keeping some of the pipes together, according to CBCL Ltd.

The $40,000 report concludes what happened in west Saint John would not have been among the "anticipated outcomes" of the water changeover.

The city, which is being represented by two law firms and staff solicitors, denies it was negligent when it switched about 5,600 customers on the west side to water drawn from the South Bay Wellfield in September 2017. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

The statement of claim, filed on behalf of Steadman, fellow representative plaintiff Frances Brownell and other members, alleges the city was "negligent and breached duties of care" by failing to "adequately test, analyze and/or review the distinct chemistry of the new water source and condition of the water pipes before, during and after the switchover."

The lawsuit is seeking damages to cover existing and future costs of repairing structural damage, and repairing or replacing pipes, appliances and other equipment.

None of the allegations have been proven in court and the city denies negligence.

In its statement of defence, the city said the decision to change the water source was a policy decision made in good faith and based on the best available advice.

Last month, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Deborah Hackett agreed to certify the suit as a class action. The city's lawyers did not object.

The parties are scheduled to meet with the judge in October "to see kind of where both sides stand on the issue," said Steadman.

In May 2020, they are expected to each seek a summary judgment, she said. If Hackett doesn't side with one party or the other, the matter will go to trial.

"So this could be, you know, a few years yet in the making before things are fully settled," said Steadman.

"It's not a quick fix but, you know, the wheels of justice turn slowly. But hopefully they continue to turn."

With files from Information Morning Saint John

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