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Las Vegas jury returns nine-figure award in water contamination case

Updated October 4, 2023 - 10:19 pm

A jury awarded more than $228 million in total damages on Wednesday to several plaintiffs who sued Real Water bottled water company after its product was tied to an outbreak of liver illnesses and at least one woman’s death.

After a full day of deliberations, the jury determined that Las Vegas-based Real Water and two other defendants in the case were liable for $28.5 million in compensatory damages and that Real Water should pay punitive damages. Jurors returned with another verdict Wednesday night and ordered Real Water to pay an additional $200 million in punitive damages.

Attorney Will Kemp, who represented the majority of the plaintiffs in the case, said the verdict is among the highest for a single case in Nevada’s history.

The lawsuit, which was filed in May 2021, also named Hanna Instruments and Milwaukee Instruments as defendants. Plaintiffs alleged that faulty testing meters produced by the companies contributed to toxic chemicals found in the water, but the jury found that the companies were not liable for punitive damages.

Attorney Scott Rasmussen, who represented Hanna Instruments, said his clients “share in the sorrow and loss of these plaintiffs, but feel that, appropriately, Real Water was found to be the cause of their damages.”

Kemp said he was happy with the jury’s decision.

“We think it’s going to send a message hopefully so this doesn’t happen again to someone else,” he said.

When arguing for punitive damages, Kemp told jurors that the amount should serve as a warning to other food and water companies in the U.S. to test their products properly.

Multiple lawsuits have been launched against Real Water, and the case that resulted in Wednesday’s verdict was the first to go to trial. Plaintiffs in the case included the family of a 69-year-old woman who died from liver failure and the family of a 7-month-old boy who was hospitalized with severe liver failure.

Kathleen Ryerson was hospitalized for weeks before dying of liver failure on Nov. 11, 2020, after drinking the water for years.

Jurors awarded a total of $28.5 million in compensatory damages. The child who fell ill from the water and his family are to receive $7 million in compensatory damages, and the estate of the woman who died and her heirs are to receive a total of $7.5 million.

Kemp said the compensatory amount announced by the jury did not include attorney fees and medical costs owed to the plaintiffs.

Real Water has been subject to investigations by the Southern Nevada Health District and the Food and Drug Administration, which pulled the product from shelves in March 2021.

Kemp told jurors during closing arguments on Tuesday that all of the plaintiffs suffered from liver failure after drinking the bottled water, which was delivered to people’s homes and sold at Whole Foods. He also argued that the company hired unqualified employees and did not properly test the water.

Real Water has accepted liability in the case, attorney Joel Odou said, but he argued Tuesday that the company should not be held liable for punitive damages.

He told jurors on Wednesday that the company did test the water but did not know to test for hydrazine, a toxic chemical used in rocket fuel.

“This is a failure of imagination,” he said. “A failure to understand there was hydrazine in the water.”

Odou declined to comment on the case after the verdict.

Richard Belsky, a plaintiff who was hospitalized with severe liver failure after drinking Real Water, said he lives in fear that the chemicals in the water could affect his health for the rest of his life. Belsky told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he hopes the verdict will prevent others from going through what he experienced.

“The most important thing is that the change happens so that products that go on the market don’t kill people,” he said.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240.

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