Libby, Mont., asbestos victims consider $43M deal

AP News
Posted: Mar 08, 2011 8:44 PM
Libby, Mont., asbestos victims consider $43M deal

More than 1,100 victims of asbestos contamination are nearing a $43 million settlement over claims that Montana health officials failed to warn miners about the hazards of a deadly vermiculite mine, documents in the case show.

Hundreds of people have been killed and some 1,500 sickened following decades of exposure to asbestos from the now-shuttered W.R. Grace & Co. mine, in the small northwestern Montana town of Libby.

Claimant notices obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday show at least 1,125 victims are considering a deal that calls for payments ranging from $21,500 to $60,700, depending on the severity of sickness.

Attorneys in the case would get one-third of the $43 million, which would be subtracted from victim payments.

Terms of the deal were first reported by the Daily Inter Lake.

In 2004, the Montana Supreme Court said the state should have warned miners about health hazards identified by state officials in Libby as early as the 1950s.

`Plainly, the state knew as a result of its inspections that the mine's owner was doing nothing to protect the workers from the toxins in their midst," Justice Patricia Cotter said in the 2004 ruling.

Attorneys for the state and victims have since been negotiating terms of a monetary settlement under which state agencies would be released from future liability.

Most of Libby's victims never worked in the mine but were sickened after family members brought mine dust home on their clothing or after spending their childhood playing among mine waste that littered the town of 3,000.

The majority of claimants in the settlement are now 65 years or older, according to notices from their attorneys.

The Libby mine closed in 1990, and more than $330 million has been spent on a cleanup that is expected to go on for years. W.R. Grace & Co. escaped most liability when it filed for bankruptcy after the extent of contamination was revealed.

The settlement stems from multiple lawsuits brought against Montana agencies for failing to protect victims in Libby.

The state originally claimed in its defense that it had no legal obligation to provide warning of the mine's dangers.

Attorney Tom Lewis, whose Great Falls firm represents some of the victims, said he could not comment on the settlement.

"The people of Libby have been waiting a long time. We've been working on this case a long time," Lewis said. "I can't comment on ongoing litigation because it's not ethical for me to do so."

Lewis added that claimants "have to keep quiet until this goes through the proper process."

One claimant in the state settlement said he was not satisfied with the terms but signed anyway to move on and be done with the lingering litigation. People involved in the case have been told by lawyers not to speak publicly about the case while settlement talks are ongoing, and the man spoke on condition of anonymity because he was worried about jeopardizing claims made by other members of his family

The state's case is being handled by the Risk Management and Tort Division of the Department of Administration. The division's chief defense counsel, Bill Gianoulias, said he could not comment on the settlement.

A memorandum of understanding outlining the $43 million deal was signed by parties to the case in November 2009.

At the time, the settlement was expected to be finalized within months, according to letters subsequently sent to the victims by their attorneys.

But three claimants refused to sign _ the first in a series of delays that led to a mediator being brought in to finalize the settlement early in 2010. An updated agreement was reached last June.

A final settlement would not go into force until it gets court approval.