Jury finds that railway contributed to two deaths in Montana town where asbestos sickened thousands

April 29, 2024

(United States) A federal jury has said that BNSF Railway contributed to the deaths of two people who were exposed to asbestos decades ago when tainted mining material was shipped through a Montana town where thousands have been sickened.

The jury awarded $4 million each in compensatory damages to the estates of the two plaintiffs, who died in 2020. Jurors said asbestos-contaminated vermiculite that spilled in the rail yard in the town of Libby, Montana was a substantial factor in the plaintiffs’ illnesses and deaths.

The vermiculite from Libby has high concentrations of naturally-occurring asbestos and was used in insulation and for other commercial purposes in homes and businesses across the U.S.

After being mined from a mountaintop outside town, it was loaded onto rail cars that sometimes spilled the material in the Libby rail yard. Residents have described piles of vermiculite being stored in the yard and dust from the facility blowing through downtown Libby.

The jury did not find that BNSF acted intentionally or with indifference so no punitive damages were awarded. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. acquired BNSF in 2010, two decades after the W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine near Libby shut down and stopped shipping the contaminated mineral.

The estates of the two victims argued that the railroad knew the asbestos-tainted vermiculite was dangerous and failed to clean it up. Both lived near the rail yard decades ago and died from mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

The pollution in Libby has been cleaned up, largely at public expense. W.R. Grace, which played a central role in the town’s tragedy, filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and paid $1.8 billion into an asbestos trust fund to settle future cases.

Yet the long timeframe over which asbestos-related diseases develop means people previously exposed are likely to continue getting sick for years to come, health officials say.

The case in federal civil court over the two deaths was the first of numerous lawsuits against the Texas-based railroad corporation to reach trial over its past operations in Libby. Current and former residents of the town near the U.S.-Canada border want BNSF held accountable, accusing it of playing a role in asbestos exposure that health officials say has killed several hundred people and sickened thousands.

The railroad was considering whether to appeal, said a BNSF spokesperson.

Federal prosecutors in 2005 indicted W. R. Grace and executives from the company on criminal charges over the contamination in Libby. A jury acquitted them following a 2009 trial.

The Environmental Protection Agency descended on Libby after 1999 news reports of illnesses and deaths among mine workers and their families. In 2009 the agency declared in Libby the nation’s first ever public health emergency under the federal Superfund cleanup programme.

A second trial against the railroad over the death of a Libby resident is scheduled for May in federal court in Missoula.

This is valid as of the 29th April 2024.

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