Courts Bogged Down for Decades by W.R. Grace Asbestos Suits

More than twenty years of civil lawsuits against W.R. Grace have plagued the civil court system of Lincoln County, Montana. The first batch of lawsuits was filed in the early 1980s without much fanfare, but by the middle of that decade, lawsuits flooded the court system. These claims argued that W. R. Grace officials intentionally ignored the warnings passed down to them from Montana agencies requesting that the vermiculite mine be cleaned up. Prior to 1995, there was a statue of limitations giving asbestos victims only three years in which to file their claims, but a ruling by the Montana Supreme Court allowed for a person to file without a time limit if they could prove that they were intentionally harmed through the negligence of the company. This resulted in scores of new lawsuits brought against W. R. Grace’s inappropriate tactics in dealing with its toxic vermiculite mine. Vermiculite is a naturally occurring form of asbestos, which has been shown to cause asbestosis and mesothelioma in many of the residents of Libby, Montana, located near the mine.

Until the arrival in 1999 of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at Libby, Montana, to assess the toxicity of the mine, only 150 civil suits had been filed against Grace, but after the EPA’s visit, over 800 cases were put through the Lincoln County courthouse. Two years later in 2001, Grace filed for bankruptcy. It has since admitted to the destructive nature of the asbestos from its mine, but it denies criminal negligence or wrongdoing. A pending criminal trial for Grace will determine if the courts agree. W. R. Grace still is likely to face further civil lawsuits from asbestos exposure in the future. The latency period for asbestos-related diseases is decades, and the children living in Libby, Montana, have been exposed since their birth to the asbestos dust from the vermiculite mine in Libby. According to a report from the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, “The extent of the epidemic of environmental mesothelioma due to exposures based at Libby will probably not peak for another 10 to 20 years.”