Former Mill Worker Wins $36.5M Asbestos Exposure Lawsuit Verdict

Despite the mining company's bankruptcy, the court found the mill's insurance company liable for failing to warn workers of known asbestos dangers.

A Montana jury has delivered what some are calling a landmark verdict of $36.5 million in an asbestos exposure lawsuit brought by a former miller work who developed mesothelioma following years of exposure to toxic fibers.

The claim was brought by Ralph Hutt, against the Libby, Montana vermiculite mill, W.R. Grace Co., and its insurance carrier Maryland Casualty Company (MCC), alleging that workers were exposed to dangerous airborne asbestos, which is the only known cause for mesothelioma cancer.

Nearly all uses for asbestos have been banned in the United States for decades. However, new injuries continue to be diagnosed among individuals exposed, as mesothelioma is a very slow growing form of cancer that can be diagnosed dozens of years after last asbestos exposure, and is often at a very advanced stage by the time it is discovered, resulting in a short life expectancy with the disease.

Hutt indicated at trial that he was exposed to the toxic asbestos fibers, which were airborne throughout the vermiculite mill. Despite recommendations by industrial hygienists, doctors and workers’ safety experts for there to be substantial efforts to abate or reduce asbestos hazards, W.R. Grace failed to use reasonable care under the circumstances to act or warn workers of the known risk of exposure to airborne asbestos in and about the mines, according to the lawsuit.

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Exposure to asbestos can cause the development of mesothelioma. Lawsuits have been filed nationwide against asbestos manufacturers.

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During the nine day trial held in Cascade County, Montana, it was alleged the company knew its asbestos-based vermiculite mill posed a serious risk to human health and intentionally concealed the dangers, while moving employees who became sick to other sites with lower concentrations of toxic asbestos fibers.

The lawsuit claims W.R. Grace intentionally neglected the vast number of employees from the mill who reported lung injuries, attempting to belittle the problem by calling it a dust problem, all while having documentation of routine testing that revealed as much as 80% of the dust was in fact asbestos.

W.R. Grace was also accused of intentionally hiding the asbestos dangers at the vermiculite mill from the Industrial Accident Board, by encouraging sick workers to settle with the companies outside of court, rather than drawing attention to the general public about the risks of asbestos-related adverse health effects at the facilities. Despite MCC claiming they could not be held liable for the now bankrupt W.R. Grace companies actions, the Cascade County jury delivered a $36.5 million verdict determining the insurance carrier also had a duty to warn workers of the asbestos dangers.

Of the $36.5 million verdict, $6.5 million provides compensatory damages for Hutt, who now suffers from mesothelioma, and is required to be tethered to an oxygen tank. The additional $30 million was awarded in punitive damages against Maryland Casualty Company, which are intended to punish the defendant’s reckless actions and deter other companies from engaging in similar behavior that places profits before the health and safety of workers.

Mesothelioma lawsuits are the longest-running mass tort in U.S. history, with more than 600,000 people having filed a case against more than 6,000 defendants after being diagnosed with mesothelioma or other related injuries that were allegedly caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.

Although exposure to asbestos has been reduced for years, a report issued in April 2020 found that asbestos lung cancer lawsuits increased by more than 20% in 2019, and mesothelioma case filings increased by about 2%.

In addition to claims for workers exposed to asbestos in the course of her employment, in recent years there have been a growing number of secondary exposure mesothelioma cases have been brought on behalf of spouses, children and other family members alleging they developed the disease after breathing asbestos fibers brought home in the hair or on the clothing of individuals who worked directly with the material.

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