The Montana Supreme Court is creating an asbestos claims court to help with asbestos-related personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits. There are hundreds of cases all stemming from the state’s history of vermiculite mining.
The order was signed on November 28, but the Supreme Court has had authority to establish an asbestos court since the Montana Legislature’s 2011 session. It was decided the court would be fully funded and a permanent judge would hear all cases. This coincided with the discovery of the extent of Libby’s asbestos contamination.
Vermiculite mined in Libby was contaminated with a deadly form of amphibole asbestos, known as tremolite. Tremolite is among the deadliest of all asbestos fibers and poses a danger to anyone inhaling it.
The main vermiculite mine, W.R. Grace and Co., filed bankruptcy shortly after the extent of the asbestos contamination became known. As a result, the company has removed itself from most liability.
Libby has hugely contributed to the state of Montana’s mesothelioma and asbestos statistics. The highest incidence occurs in Lincoln County, where Libby is located. The state has 19 cataloged asbestos mines and natural deposits.
From 1999 to 2015, approximately 190 Montana residents died from mesothelioma. The annual mesothelioma death rate is 11.6 people per million, which is significantly higher than the national average.
It’s not just mining that has exposed Montana’s residents to asbestos. Oil refineries and power plants, as well as the sugar, paper, and lumber industries have been offenders. Besides W.R. Grace and Co.’s mine, the Upper Clark Fork River Basin was also a large cause of asbestos exposure.
The basin is the biggest Superfund site in the country with asbestos found primarily in its storm water infrastructure (pipes and concrete) of Butte Hill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been dealing with this site since the 1980s.
About 600 asbestos and mesothelioma cases will move from the District Courts to the new asbestos claims court presided over by Flathead County District Court Judge Amy Eddy. The hope is that cases will now be decided much more quickly and get settled in the asbestos claims court.
And a case that cannot be decided in the asbestos court will go back to trial in the district court it was filed in. Attorneys with asbestos-related cases have until December 28th to file a notice of appearance in court.