Utility that sued customer after she complained about drinking water loses in court

·3 min read

A South Carolina utility that sued one of its customers for complaining about the quality of the drinking water she receives has lost in court after three years of legal disputes.

Circuit Judge Brian Gibbons dismissed the defamation case by the Jenkinsville Water Co. against Bertha Goins, a Fairfield County Council member who receives water from the utility.

Gibbons did not provide an explanation for his decision, but is expected to do so with a formal written order.

This week’s ruling is a win for the public’s right to criticize government, said Goins’ attorney and a leading free press lawyer in South Carolina.

Goins has said she’s seen muddy water flow from her tap multiple times. She has said the system is getting old and has problems. The water company has said her claims are false, unwarranted, and cast the utility in a bad light.

“Ms. Goins is pleased the court dismissed JWC’s baseless defamation claim against her for speaking the truth, on behalf of herself and her constituents, about the concerns they have about the quality of JWC’s water,’’ according to a statement from her attorney, Tommy Morgan. “As the law makes clear, elected officials such as Ms. Goins need to be able to speak for the people and bring such critical issues as water quality to light on behalf of those who oftentimes do not have a voice.’’

Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association and other media outlets, including The State, said the public’s rights have been protected.

“The utility is a special purpose district, an arm of government,’’ Bender said. “Since at least 1776, citizens have had every right to criticize the performance of government.’’

The Jenkinsville Water Co. has claimed it is a private, non-profit corporation, but Attorney General Alan Wilson has issued an opinion that it is a public body. Regardless of whether the utility is a government, Bender said, the public has a right to criticize utilities if the claims are accurate.

T. Jeff Goodwyn, an attorney for the water company, was not immediately available for comment Thursday. Greg Ginyard, the company’s top official, also was not immediately available.

In addition to tossing out the Jenkinsville suit, the judge allowed several counterclaims by Goins against the water company to continue.

The Jenkinsville Water Co., a small utility that serves about 2,500 people in Fairfield County north of Columbia, has had run-ins with state environmental and health regulators since the 1980s.

From 2010 to 2020, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control made at least four enforcement cases against the water company for various problems. In one case, the company did not notify customers for days about bacteria in the drinking water, resulting in a state fine of $14,000, The State has previously reported. The newspaper chronicled Jenkinsville’s challenges during a 2019 series about the trouble small drinking water systems have across South Carolina.

Ginyard has consistently said the utility provides quality water. In its 2020 lawsuit against Goins, the utility said she had “engaged in a public campaign of maliciously attacking Jenkinsville Water Co. by stating that the water .... is substandard,’’ but that the claims were “false, defamatory and impugn the good reputation (of) Jenkinsville Water Co. ‘’

Goins, a former water company board member, said Thursday she’s seen little improvement in the water and is glad with the court’s ruling. She questioned the wisdom of Jenkinsville’s decision to spend money to fight her in court.

The company should have focused on trying to repair the system “and do better and clean it up,’’ Goins said. “That is what should have happened, rather than suing me to hush.’’