Last week, a Montana state court judge ruled in favor of more than 1,000 people or estates who claimed that officials from the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine failed to warn local residents of the dangers of asbestos exposure, awarding them a total of $25 million for their suffering and damages.
The Billings Gazette reports that the verdict was reached on Wednesday, January 18, and is the second large payout made by the state to residents of Libby, Montana and surrounding communities. In 2012, $43 million was awarded to another group of about 1,400 plaintiffs who had symptoms of asbestos-related illnesses.
During the 1950s and 1960s, residents of northwest Montana and especially the small town of Libby were exposed to “enormously high levels of asbestos” from the dust that constantly spewed from the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine. Though residents had no knowledge that the dust in the air may cause them to develop mesothelioma, asbestosis, or other potentially fatal conditions, there is substantial evidence that the mine bosses did know this—and took extensive steps to hide this knowledge from citizens.
The W.R. Grace mines operated from 1919 until 1990, and produced up to 85% of all vermiculite sold in the United States.
According to the Billings Gazette, reporters have uncovered hundreds of pages of safety reports from mine inspectors which clearly state that workers in “all areas of the sprawling pit mine” were exposed to massive amounts of asbestos. These reports were nearly all marked “Confidential. Do not release,” and were only viewed by the owners of the mines and highest-level operators.
Not only did officials at W.R. Grace personally seek to hide the extent and risk of asbestos exposure from local residents, but they allegedly also paid physicians to help them maintain their rouse. Mine owners paid most or all of physicians’ salaries, but despite frequent contact and business dealings they never saw fit to share with town doctors the known risk of asbestos exposure residents faced. One doctor who realized that the mine was making his patients sick and spoke out had his privileges to treat patients at the community hospital and subsequently left town.
Mine inspectors also tried to make Libby and the workers at the W.R. Grace mines safer, but their repeated demands for protective gear, dust suppression systems, better ventilation, and other measures that would prevent exposure were ignored. This meant that not only the mine workers were exposed to asbestos without warning, but they also brought asbestos home to their families after work, endangering most residents of the area.
The asbestos covering Libby and surrounding communities was so thick that children could be seen sketching in the heavy coating of dust. It was not until 1999 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acted on media reports of the high rates of unexplained deaths and illnesses in Libby and nearby. In the nearly 17 years since then, almost $600 million has been spent on cleaning up Libby, the nearby town of Troy, and other areas in Montana. Thousands of homes, businesses, public parks, schools, and other structures have been inspected and cleaned since the area was designated a Superfund site. The EPA has recently announced that their efforts in the area are nearly complete, and residents only have a couple of months left to request inspections before the project is closed.
Even if the EPA’s efforts to clean Libby and nearby areas may stop soon, the litigation in which residents demand compensation will not. Residents of the area have also filed a lawsuit against BNSF Railway, which was responsible for transporting vermiculite from the mines to processing sites. The trial for this case will begin by the end of 2017. Additional lawsuits are also being investigated and filed against the state, based on claims that state inspectors only inspected the mines and not the residential areas for asbestos risks.
The town of Libby, Montana is an extreme example of the massive damage that can result from negligent asbestos exposure. However, there are thousands of individuals who were exposed to asbestos at work or in another capacity who have also been diagnosed with mesothelioma or related diseases and who also deserve compensation for their suffering and damages. If you or your loved one has been diagnosed or died from an asbestos-related illness, you could recover substantial compensation through an asbestos lawsuit. Please contact our attorneys today to learn more about your rights in a free legal consultation.