Lawsuit in Libby, Montana, Nears Settlement

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A long and emotional legal battle that has involved more than 1,125 Libby, Montana, residents since 2004 appears to be drawing to a close as claimants consider a $43 million settlement.

The deal, which was originally extended in November 2009, was delayed by three individuals who were not satisfied by the terms. In October 2010, the state and its insurance company both signed agreements indicating the last stages of negotiation, and the suit is now awaiting court approval for its final revision.

In its peak, Libby’s W.R. Grace & Co. mine manufactured around 80 percent of the world’s vermiculite supply, yet the vermiculite deposits were laced with deadly tremolite asbestos. The mine opened in 1923 and was not shut down until 1990. During and after this time, hundreds of area residents died from asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma, and countless others are still fighting these illnesses.

In Libby, asbestos literally permeated the air. Mine employees were not the only ones exposed to toxic asbestos. The workers’ families inhaled fibers that miners inadvertently brought home on work clothing, while children encountered the mineral in schools, parks and baseball fields where mine waste had been deposited.

Since 2004, attorneys have been battling on behalf of these individuals, claiming that most of the asbestos-related diseases could have been prevented if W.R. Grace & Co. had taken adequate steps to protect its workers. Seven executives of the now bankrupt company were charged with concealing knowledge on the dangers of asbestos, including a paper detailing the definitive link between their product and mesothelioma.

The state’s Board of Health inspectors who visited the mine were aware of the unsafe working conditions, yet felt that they were under no obligation to publicize warnings. The Montana Supreme Court found that the officials who opted not to regulate the jobsite had been made aware of the dangers of asbestos in 1950.

Most of the plaintiffs are now at least 65 years old, and after watching the case spend years in the legal system, many would simply like to see the litigation come to a close. As late as June 2010, terms were still being updated. The increase in plaintiffs from 807 to 1,125 necessitated a revision of settlement values.

A final distribution grid indicates that plaintiffs are set to receive payments of between $21,500 and $60,700, depending on their diagnosis. The lawyers’ fees will absorb one-third of the amount, and $500,000 of the settlement will be reserved in a contingency fund to address any future claims.

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Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure.

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