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Asbestos Lawsuits: Continuing Fall from Grace

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Libby, MT A group of lawyers who represented asbestos victims in Libby - many of those victims now have asbestosis and other lung diseases - are seeking about $4 million in fees and expenses for working more than 16,000 hours over 11 years on their clients’ cases that settled for almost $20 million.

Asbestos Lawsuits: Continuing Fall from GraceThe attorneys describe their fee request, approximately 20 percent of the settlement agreed to by the chemical company W.R. Grace, as reasonable given the amount of work involved on the asbestos lawsuits. According to their retainer contracts, the attorneys are entitled to up to 40 percent of the settlement, which was intended to cover the victims’ present and future medical costs. Instead, they have opted for this lesser percentage that would come from not just the attorneys’ clients but from all qualifying victims. State District Judge James Wheelis has ordered a March 1 fairness hearing on the request.

The $19.6 million settlement will be put into a medical trust fund set up for Libby residents. Trust administrator and attorney Nancy Gibson said that the Grace settlement funds will only last about five years. Because of the long latency periods in asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, the trust fund may be depleted by the time that some victims need medical help. But Gibson said that some litigation involving Libby asbestos victims is still pending and more money might be expected in the future. Gibson also said that the attorneys (who requested their fees from the settlement) have been working unpaid to persuade Medicare administrators to forgive money owed to the government by some of their asbestos victims.

Not everyone agrees with Gibson. Libby resident Mike Crill wrote in a letter to Judge Wheelis that the trust was the only means to pay for the medical care keeping him alive. But how much money would still be available now if not for the asbestos attorneys?

Previously, W.R. Grace covered the medical expenses that have been assumed by the trust, which has cost the company about $2 million each year since 2000, the year that revealed the extent of asbestos contamination in Libby. Due to 65,656 such cases involving 17 property damage claims and more than 129,000 personal injury claims, in 2001, Grace filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11. Also in 2000, a class-action suit filed against Grace on behalf of about 26,000 people who live or at one time lived in Libby, sought compensation for medical monitoring and cleanup in connection with the asbestos-contaminated mining operations conducted for more than 60 years in Libby.

One year later, a judge affirmed the ruling from the bankruptcy court. To this day, Grace still operates under bankruptcy protection because litigation is still pending in the Third Circuit Court. In January 2013, the company said that oral hearings are scheduled for the first quarter and a ruling could be handed down by the third quarter.

To this day, asbestos remains in Libby. The Center for Asbestos Related Disease in Libby sees about 3,000 patients with asbestos-related diseases. The clinic has reported an increased caseload in recent years due to widespread asbestos disease linked to exposure from the Grace mine at Libby. Contact the Information Center for the latest information on the work conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency in Libby.

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