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State Supreme Court Hears BNSF Asbestos Liability Case

Downtown Libby, MT.
Downtown Libby, MT.

The Montana Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday about whether BNSF Railway can be held liable for exposing Libby residents to asbestos that was in shipments of vermiculite it transported before the local mine shut down in 1990.

The court heard a little over an hour of oral arguments from BNSF and a Kalispell-based law firm, which is representing the 1,200 plaintiffs in the case. Those plaintiffs say they were exposed to harmful asbestos dust in Libby that came from vermiculite BNSF was carrying as freight.

Attorney Jinnifer Mariman says back in January, the Asbestos Claims Court, charged with hearing Libby-related asbestos cases, ruled in favor of her clients in several key areas.

"The first being finding that BNSF was strictly liable for its operations in Libby Montana involving vermiculite, and the second issue was whether or not federal law would preempt plantiffs' claims or basically bar plaintiffs’ claims, and the third issue was whether or not BNSF, as a common carrier charged with transporting freight, should be immune from strict liability."

The asbestos court found that overall, BNSF could not shield itself from liability with the argument that it was merely transporting products it was paid to carry.

It’s not clear when Montana’s Supreme Court will issue a ruling on the appeal. If it sides with the plaintiffs in the case, it could then move to trial. Calls to BNSF and the attorney representing the company were not returned in time for this story.

This is the second Libby asbestos appeal the state’s highest court has heard since the inception of the Asbestos Claims Court.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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