Montana Judge is Overruled in W.R. Grace Asbestos Case

Ninth Circuit Also Rules Against Limited Definition of Asbestos

HELENA, MO - November 9, 2007 - In The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, federal prosecutors won the reversal of a number of pretrial rulings in their case against W.R. Grace & Co. for contaminating the town of Libby, Montana, with asbestos. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that criminal charges of "knowing endangerment" could be reinstated against the vermiculite and chemical manufacturer, W.R. Grace & Co., and seven of its executives for knowingly releasing asbestos fibers into the air. The release of the asbestos fibers caused asbestos-related illnesses and, in many cases, death for the residents of Libby.

W.R. Grace is also accused of concealing information from its employees about the dangers of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite products, obstructing the government's clean up efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), interfering with EPAinvestigations, and wire fraud.

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy threw out the "knowing endangerment" charge in a pretrial ruling in Missoula, Montana. A criminal conspiracy charge under The Clean Air Act carries a 15-year sentence for knowingly releasing pollutants into the air that can cause injury or death. Judge Molloy ruled that the time allowed to pursue the allegations against W.R. Grace had run out. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision.

A plaintiff attorney from Spokane, Washington said, "This is excellent. When we first got involved in this case half a decade ago, the first documents we uncovered caused us to say, 'these guys ought to be in jail'." (The Spokesman-Review, September 24, 2007) The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled against Judge Molloy's decision to limit the definition of asbestos, saying that asbestos need not include "mineral-by-mineral classifications to provide notice of its hazardous nature, particularly to these knowledgeable defendants." (United States vs W.R. Grace, District Court District of Montana, September 20, 2007)

The appeal process began on July 9, 2007, in Seattle, Washington, where the first of many of the Montana judge's decisions were overturned. The panel of three judges from the Ninth Circuit Court ruled that expert witnesses could give testimony on asbestos samples from Libby and W.R. Grace's testing process for asbestos in its vermiculite products. Witnesses can also testify on a health study done by their peers on the 7,300 Montana townspeople. The study revealed that 1,300 of the people in the study had lung abnormalities consistent with asbestos-related disease such as asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma. (Big Asbestos Prosecution In Jeopardy, U.S. Argues, June 5, 2007)

Montana U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer said that the decisions made in the Ninth Circuit "moves the United States one step closer to the ultimate goal of trying the grand jury's charge against W.R. Grace and the individual defendants to a jury with a full complement of evidence."

The History of the W.R. Grace Asbestos Case in Libby, Montana

For decades, W.R. Grace mined vermiculite, a mineral containing asbestos. The miners were not only exposed to asbestos, but unaware that they were carrying the unseen poison to their homes and families. Libby residents unaffiliated with the mines were also being exposed to asbestos from breathing lethal amounts of released asbestos-laced dust into the air.

Beginning in 1999, a Seattle reporter published a series of articles that exposed the numerous health problems and deaths related to asbestos. The release of this information drew attention to the tragedy unfolding in Libby. Investigations into company matters began turning up a number of disturbing documents implicating the company's failure to notify people of the danger of asbestos exposure and their awareness that the asbestos posed a health threat. "In cemeteries in and around the tiny northwest Montana town, carved tombstones and simple crosses attest to miners and their families who died slow, painful deaths from asbestos-related disease."(Court Hands Feds a Win In Grace Case, September 20, 2007)

Prosecutors began building a case against the giant company. In 2000, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of thousands of individuals who have used or been exposed to W.R. Grace asbestos products. W.R. Grace could not handle the flood of lawsuits and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In 2005, W.R. Grace executives were indicted. Allegations against W.R. Grace will continue to play out in court.

Asbestos Diseases and Your Legal Rights

With our main office located in California, the asbestos attorneys at Brayton Purcell have been extensively involved in protecting the legal rights of asbestos victims, including injured workers and their families for over 24 years. Many of our clients suffer from asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer, or other asbestos-related diseases. We will provide a free evaluation of your potential case if you have been exposed to asbestos and think you may have developed an asbestos-related disease.