BY TRISTAN SCOTT | FLATHEAD BEACON
More than three decades ago, the lawsuits against W.R. Grace & Co. began cropping up with relative obscurity, brought by former miners and their families who were exposed to the asbestos-laced vermiculite mined in Libby.
People were dying. And as that trend became clear in the mid-1980s, the first of many lawsuits asserted that company officials ignored warnings by state agencies to clean up the contaminated vermiculite mining operation at its site in Libby.
The wave of asbestos litigation that followed was initially stanched by a statute of limitations in Montana requiring plaintiffs to file personal injury or wrongful death cases within three years of learning about any facts giving rise to their claims.
But in 1995, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that sick workers whose cases were time-barred could still sue if they were able to show that the company harmed them intentionally, opening a floodgate of litigation.
Still, the true scope of asbestos exposure in Libby didn’t come to light until November 1999, when news reports detailed a link between the vermiculite mine and the hundreds of people who were sick and dying because of exposure to asbestos dust. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived days later.
In 2001, the company filed for bankruptcy protection, citing the high volume of asbestos-related claims at Libby and elsewhere. Now that Grace has emerged from its bankruptcy protection, anyone diagnosed prior to Feb. 25, 2015 with an asbestos-related disease and who lived in Lincoln County for a minimum of six months has until Feb. 25 of this year to file a claim against Grace.
Roger Sullivan, an attorney with the Kalispell firm McGarvey, Heberling, Sullivan & Lacey, which represents the lion’s share of Libby claimants, explained that the statute of limitations in Montana to file a personal injury claim is three years from the date of diagnosis of an injury. Due to the bankruptcy proceedings, however, the three-year statute didn’t begin tolling until Feb. 25, 2015, and is set to expire next month.
“This is a significant deadline,” Sullivan said. “After this, anyone diagnosed prior to Feb. 25, 2015 will not have a single entity to recover against. Their claims will be forever barred.”
Libby native Eric Trimble is one of numerous victims coming forward as the deadline is set to expire.
Shortly before his mother died of mesothelioma in 2002, Trimble and his entire family decided to be screened for asbestos-related disease, despite not experiencing any symptoms.
He visited the Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD) in Libby and was diagnosed with asbestos-related disease, along with his father and younger sister.
“We used to play on the piles of vermiculite when we were kids and it was all over the baseball field,” Trimble said of his time in Libby, from his birth in 1952 until he graduated from Libby High School in 1970.
Trimble now lives in Tumwater, Washington, and has never experienced any symptoms of asbestos-related disease, which is common due to its latency period. Two of the diseases most commonly associated with asbestos — asbestosis and mesothelioma — have latency periods of up to 40 years. That means people who were exposed to the asbestos dust could continue to develop illnesses for decades.
When he learned about the approaching deadline, he called the Kalispell law offices and decided to file a claim, and conveyed the information to his younger sister.
“I have every reason to hope I can live out my entire life before this becomes a problem, but I know lots of people who were fine for years before it developed into a significant health problem,” he said.
Sullivan and attorney Dustin Leftridge said the firm has filed 2,200 claims on behalf of victims of asbestos-related disease due to a Libby-related exposure, with more continuing to trickle in.
“We are dealing with the harsh legal reality that the statute of limitations presents this bar,” Sullivan said. “In many cases, this is their last chance for a claim. A lot of younger folks have seen their grandparents and parents die of the disease, and even though they have a diagnosis, they simply don’t want to admit they have the disease. The consequence of that is if someone with an asbestos-related disease who was diagnosed more than three years ago begins to progress, they will have no recompense against any entity, including the primary culprit, W.R. Grace.”
“I am hopeful that we’re not receiving phone calls after the deadline expires,” Leftridge said. “I don’t want to have that phone call.”
The law office of McGarvey, Heberling, Sullivan & Lacey has already filed claims on the behalf of its existing clients. For more information about pursuing a claim or learning more about the deadline, visit the firm’s website at https://www.mcgarveylaw.com/.