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Montana Supreme Court: BNSF Shares Liability For Libby Asbestos Contamination

Downtown Libby, MT.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled largely in favor of roughly 1,200 plaintiffs Wednesday that say BNSF railway should be held liable for its part in contaminating Libby with asbestos. But, the court didn’t outline exactly what activities the railway could be held liable for, and to what extent.

The Supreme Court found that federal regulations for railways and hazardous materials did not shield BNSF from some liability for the environmental disaster. The court unanimously ruled that the company must accept some responsibility and not completely point the finger at former vermiculite mine owner WR Grace. The ruling reaffirms a previous decision from the Libby Asbestos Court.

But the Supreme Court’s ruling was not clear when it came to what activities BNSF could be held liable for and to what extent. The court ruled that BNSF is protected from strict liability for the transport of vermiculite containing asbestos, but Justice Jim Rice wrote in his opinion, “BNSF may still be found liable under a theory of ordinary negligence for the manner in which it conducted the transport of the vermiculite ore."

Rice went on to say that BNSF could be held strictly liable for other activities, but, "what those other activities may be is not an issue now before this Court." That question has been remanded to the Libby Asbestos Court.

The Kalispell law firm representing the roughly 1,200 plaintiffs in the case, McGarvey, Herberling, Sullivan & Lacy, says it’s happy with the ruling. BNSF did not return a request for comment by deadline.

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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