KALISPELL, Mont. (CN) – There's a small stack of photocopies on Allan McGarvey's desk that shows this month's dead clients. They are the obituaries of the victims that died in December of asbestos disease, a deadly cancer caused by exposure to vermiculite asbestos in the town of Libby, Montana.
And the dead will keep on coming from that pernicious disease, although a settlement announced Jan. 18 in Montana's Cascade County District Court will help pay for some of the medical costs, pain and suffering for over 1,000 victims named in civil suits against the state of Montana and its insurance company.
The $24 million settlement was a major milestone in the asbestos litigation, and one Montana firm has been at the forefront of the asbestos-related health claims since the health crisis began unfolding in Libby nearly 30 years ago.
McGarvey is an attorney with McGarvey, Heberling, Sullivan and Lacey, the Kalispell, Montana, law firm that has filed thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits stemming from the Libby vermiculite mine, where geologic vermiculite was mined and processed into home insulation in the 1950s through 1991. The vermiculite contained deadly asbestos that infected workers, who also carried it home on their clothes.
The firm represented over 800 clients in last week's settlement. McGarvey remembers when the cases started to trickle in, back in the late 1980s. The cases started as smaller workers’ compensation claims.
“Then we started to recognize there was something serious going on,” McGarvey said in an interview at his office.
As more sick people came forward, McGarvey said he started to see family members of the workers getting sick. That's when his firm began filing lawsuits against W.R. Grace, the original owner of the vermiculite that is now in bankruptcy protection.
“That created such a storm of attention” that the EPA came in and began a cleanup plan for Libby, he said. “The cases grew exponentially as the extent of the problem was uncovered.”
The people coming into the Kalispell law firm are sometimes pulling oxygen tanks, or grandchildren, in tow. The families may wait years for some kind of settlement, some kind of closure.
“It's like losing a really good friend” when they die, McGarvey said. “And it's sad when someone dies before their recovery of damages.”
McGarvey seems as passionate today about the victims – and the corporate greed that led to their illnesses – as when he and his partners took over the law firm from his father a few years ago. Longtime Montana attorney Dale McGarvey helped initiate the original asbestos litigation against W.R. Grace. One of Dale McGarvey's partners, Jon Heberling, has been the lead attorney on the asbestos cases since their inception.
What They Knew
Allan McGarvey shows a presentation that outlines just how much the corporate entities knew about the asbestos contamination in Libby, from the Montana health officials who oversaw inspections at the facilities to the corporate executives who were selling the packaged vermiculite insulation to stores around the nation.
He shows a Libby lumbermill newspaper ad that touted the safety of the vermiculite for home insulation. Meanwhile, internal memos the law firm unearthed through the discovery process showed that the company knew exactly what it was dealing with.