Major Asbestos Trial to Begin in Libby Montana

Years of delays for the victims of asbestos in Libby, Montana, have culminated in the final trial date set to begin on February 23, 2009.

Lawyers were to give their opening statements on the 23rd of February, 2009, in the criminal trial against W.R. Grace and Co. and five of its executives, a case that had been subject to dozens of setbacks and complexities.
A gag order was placed upon those participating in the trial by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, but the trial briefs already filed have given the public an eye to the issues surrounding the trial.

The prosecutors’ trial brief stated, “The defendants in this case knew the dangers of asbestos they released into the Libby, Montana air, yet they concealed the dangers, putting local residents at risk while enriching themselves.”

The defense put forth by Grace in their trial brief was, “The government has illogically charged that the defendants conspired in 1976 to violate a statute that would not exist for another 14 years.”

The outcome of the criminal trial was to determine the guilt of Grace in its knowledge that its vermiculite mine was responsible for causing asbestos-related diseases in over 2,000 people living in and around the town of Libby, Montana, a town of 2,600. Besides those sickened, another 225 have perished from being poisoned by the vermiculite asbestos from the W.R. Grace mine.

The five retired executives from Grace who were also on trial were Henry A. Eschenbach, Jack W. Wolter, William J. McCaig, Robert J. Bettacchi and Robert C. Walsh. Each of these men faced a potential to serve up to 15 years in prison in addition to fines totaling in the millions of dollars.

Initially, the trial began in February 2005 when Grace was indicted by federal prosecutors for violating the Clean Air Act and getting in the way of the EPA investigation of the Grace-owned mine. The district court judge, Judge Donald Molloy, refused to allow some evidence to be heard, which created large holes in the case put forth by the government. Federal lawyers appealed, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled Molloy’s decision. Grace appealed this, and the case went to the Supreme Court, where it was returned to Judge Molloy, and a new criminal trial date was set for February 23, 2009.