Libby, Montana, Asbestos Victims Awarded $43 Million Settlement From State

Legislation & Litigation

While the cleanup continues and the death toll still climbs, a district court judge approved Montana’s $43 million settlement with more than 1,300 plaintiffs regarding the contamination of vermiculite mines in Libby, Montana.

The settlement stems from approximately 200 lawsuits that were filed a decade ago, most claiming the state of Montana had not done enough to warn workers in the mine and protect nearby residents of the dangers that blanketed the area.

The mine, operated by W.R. Grace & Company, was laced with asbestos, the mineral that that causes mesothelioma cancer. More than 400 people have died from asbestos-related diseases since the mine was closed in 1990, and hundreds more still suffer from a variety of respiratory illnesses.

According to the Associated Press, individual settlements will range from $500 to $50,000.  The money, initially, will go into a trust fund. Before payouts can be distributed, though, it must be determined how much of it will go to the federal government to cover Medicare costs already incurred.

Other cases and other settlements still are pending. W.R. Grace Company has been in bankruptcy protection since 2001, but it is seeking judicial approval for its reorganization plan, which would reopen itself to asbestos-related lawsuits.

According to the Insurance Journal, the recent settlement ends all claims against the state but “reserves claims against all other responsible parties.”

Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena, Montana approved the settlement, even though he had dismissed similar claims in 2002. The Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that state agencies did not adequately oversee operation of the mines in Libby.

According to court documents obtained by AP, $26.8 million of the settlement will come from the state’s self-insurance reserve fund. The National Indemnity Company will pay $16.1 million. The state did not admit liability as part of the settlement.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has overseen the continued cleanup of the mine that already has cost the federal government more than $370 million.

The mine produced vermiculite, which was used in home insulation, packing material and potting soil conditioner, among other products. The majority of vermiculite in this country through the 20th century came from mines in Libby, which is in the Northwest part of Montana.

New lawsuits are expected to arise in Libby, a town of approximately 3,000, because of the length latency period with mesothelioma. It can take up to 50 years after exposure to asbestos before mesothelioma symptoms can appear.

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