Montana Creates Asbestos Court to Clear 800-Case Backlog

(CN) – A new court for victims of asbestos poisoning has been established in Montana in an effort to streamline settlements on hundreds of civil cases.

With nearly 800 civil cases of asbestos-poisoning claims making their way through the Montana judicial system, the Montana Supreme Court recently established a new court to deal specifically with asbestos-related claims

The cases stem from decades of asbestos poisoning at the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana. Workers at the Libby mine got sick from the asbestos dust which they also brought home with them, infecting their families. The vermiculite ore was mined, crushed and ground at W.R. Grace’s mill outside of Libby on Zonolite Mountain. The raw material was then transported to a loading facility near the Kootenai River and taken on rail cars to Libby, where it spilled along the railroad tracks.

A federal criminal case was brought against W.R. Grace, but that case was lost in 2009 and the company has been protected from further litigation by bankruptcy. An insurance trust fund was set up in the bankruptcy, and any new cases against Grace now go against that fund – subject to limits.

Flathead County District Court Judge Amy Eddy will preside over the court, which was created to allow discovery and settlement discussions to proceed quickly, according to Montana Supreme Court spokeswoman Beth McLaughlin. Any cases not settled will be tried in the judicial district in which the cases originated.

McGarvey, Heberling, Sullivan and Lacey is a Kalispell, Montana, law firm that has filed a majority of the claims that will now move into the new Montana asbestos court. In the last 25 years, the Montana firm 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.

Defendants among the cases currently pending include Maryland Casualty Company, International Paper Company, Burlington Northern Sante Fe railroad, the State of Montana and W.R. Grace Co. The state of Montana is named as a defendant because, according to the lawsuits, it knew about the asbestos but did not warn workers.

A $24 million settlement announced Jan. 18 in Cascade County District Court helped pay for some of the medical costs, pain and suffering for over 1,000 victims named in civil suits against the state and its insurance company.

McGarvey Heberling represented over 800 clients in the January settlement, but hundreds of cases are still in the judicial system, some dating to 2001. The cases, which have languished while federal bankruptcy issues were pending, can now proceed in Montana’s state court system. The recent action by the Montana Supreme Court places all pending asbestos cases into the specialty court.

The Supreme Court has identified about 600 pending asbestos cases that will now move into the new asbestos court. The Nov. 29 order requires attorneys in asbestos-related cases to file a notice of appearance with the Asbestos Court by Dec. 28, 2017.

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