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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Montana mine workers take insurance giant to court over asbestos payouts

Miners and their survivors say Zurich transferred their claims to investors, which are making huge profits by sitting on the cash.

(CN) — Zurich American Insurance, part of Swiss-based insurance heavyweight Zurich Insurance Group that was listed by Forbes as the 112th largest public company in the world, has stalled insurance payouts to mine workers and their families for the profit of their own investors, according to a new lawsuit.

The 17-page suit, filed Monday in Montana federal court, involves 17 former mine workers as well as representatives from another 29 who have since died after the miners developed a series of health problems and cancers from asbestos exposure.

The deadly asbestos fallout — and the lengthy legal battle that followed — dates back to the 1960s and 70s, when workers were exposed to asbestos at the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana.

The fight over who should be held liable for the miners’ plight started over 20 years ago, shortly after reports of workers falling ill in the region sparked an emergency cleanup of the area. Contamination from the mining activity has since been blamed for hundreds of deaths, and federal efforts to clean up the remote Montana region continue to this day.

The battle over who should be responsible came to head in 2020, when the Montana Supreme Court ruled Maryland Casualty Co., which has since become a part of Zurich, didn’t uphold their duty in warning the miners about the dangers of the mine. While the W.R. Grace mine has long since been shut down, Montana’s high court found the insurance company had a duty to warn the workers that tiny asbestos particles in the mining dust could be inhaled and severely damage the miners' lungs.

But even after this ruling, the plaintiffs in Monday's suit say Zurich continues to refuse to play ball. Instead of resolving the multiple claims against the company, Zurich has instead made no efforts to settle the claims or make meaningful medical payments to the former workers, the plaintiffs say.

“Despite repeated requests for reasonable settlement of the accrued claims, Zurich has not made a reasonable offer to the plaintiffs, collectively or individually, and has made no attempt whatsoever to settle the accrued claims of the plaintiffs in the worker group,” the complaint states. “Zurich has further attempted to condition any settlement negotiations with respect to accrued claims upon the requirement that the plaintiffs must also settle and release any claim for breach of Zurich’s separate breach claim settlement duties, another form of unfair leverage.”

Why, though, would the insurance giant intentionally stall on their responsibilities? According to the complaint and attorney for the miners Allan McGarvey, it’s all about the investors. McGarvey says Zurich had paid to have at least a portion of the claims transferred to investors. Once transferred, investors like Enstar Group can then hold on to the cash and profit from the delays.

“They are making huge amounts of money on the money that should be paid to claimants,” McGarvey said in a statement obtained by The Associated Press. “They are literally investing in human suffering."

The lawsuit concludes by asking a judge to put a stop to any third-party influence over the asbestos claims and to force the insurance company into covering medical costs and expenses born from the asbestos exposure.

Representatives for Zurich American Insurance did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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