Montana’s Supreme Court has appointed six more judges to the state’s year-old asbestos claims court.
It’s been nearly 20 years since the Libby asbestos disaster hit national news, but many Montanans affected by it are still fighting for reparations in the courts, with no end in sight.
Court Administrator Beth McLaughlin says some people have had cases pending for more than 15 years, and without the appointment of the additional judges, "It could take decades to get these cases tried."
Many have been tied up because of federal bankruptcy filings by W.R. Grace, the company that mined asbestos in Libby, which prevented the cases from proceeding in state court. Now that the federal proceedings have ended, Montana’s asbestos claims court has identified more than 2,200 pending cases alleging asbestos exposure against more than 40 individual defendants. The supreme court’s appointment of six more judges this month is a relief to attorneys and claimants in the thick of the battle.
"We appreciate the attention of the court and of these new asbestos claims court judges on this matter," says Jinnifer Jeresek Mariman, an attorney at a Kalispell law firm that has handled most of the asbestos exposure cases in Montana. She’s from Libby and pursued law specifically to help her hometown.
"It’s our hope that we’ll be able to get these cases resolved more quickly."
The asbestos claims court was an attempt to meet the demands of both claimants and defendants. District Judge Amy Eddy in Flathead County was the first appointed to it, and she says adding six more judges only scratches the surface of the demand for legal resolutions.
"Well frankly it’s not nearly enough," Eddy says. "We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of cases to try across primarily northwest Montana."
Eddy says the Montana judiciary as a whole is understaffed and underfunded. The now seven judges working on the asbestos claims court are doing so voluntarily without additional compensation on top of already hefty workloads. It’s not a light undertaking.
"The Asbestos Claims Court is handling some of the most long-standing and complicated toxic exposure cases that the judiciary has handled in Montana. I’m unaware of any other litigation with this scope of complexity and history in the state courts."
More than 60 countries have banned the use of asbestos entirely, including Canada and the United Kingdom. The U.S. regulates the use of the mineral, but has not banned it.
Montana’s Supreme Court anticipates an additional 200 asbestos exposure cases to crop up each year in the foreseeable future.