BILLINGS – A state judge has ruled that lawyers for victims of asbestos exposure in a contaminated Montana town are entitled to more than $4 million in fees and expenses out of a $19.6 million settlement with chemical manufacturer W.R. Grace and Co.
Some victims had objected to the amount as excessive. They wanted the money to go toward future medical care for more than 2,200 people sickened by asbestos dust from a Grace mine near Libby.
But State District Judge James Wheelis said in a recent order that the 20 percent fee was “fair and reasonable.”
He cited the 18,000 hours of work that attorneys from three firms said they put into the case, which carried a risk of failure that could have left them with nothing.
The full amount sought by the attorneys was more than $5 million. However, Wheelis granted their request to return $981,000 to a medical trust for victims.
The settlement came out of litigation tied to the Maryland-based company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.
The money will go into a trust that will help cover medical costs for victims, including 1,350 clients of the attorneys awarded the fee and 850 others who were not clients but will benefit from the trust.
Wheelis said the fee payment should come from the entire group of victims, not just the attorneys’ clients, because they will all benefit from the settlement.
“It would be inequitable if non-clients received the same benefit from the fund as clients, but not share in the burden of the litigation expense,” he said.
The attorneys were from three law firms: McGarvey, Heberling, Sullivan and McGarvey P.C. of Kalispell; Lewis, Slovak, Kovacich and Marr P.C. of Great Falls; and Murtha Cullina LLP, which has offices in multiple locations.
The trust fund set up with the Grace settlement money has enough money to last about five years, according to its administrator.
Yet health officials say the long latency period for asbestos-related diseases means people in Libby will continue to develop medical complications, possibly for decades to come. That means the trust could be depleted by the time some people need it.
The mine closed in 1990 and Libby was declared a federal Superfund site in 2002, prompting a government-sponsored cleanup that has cost more than $447 million to date.
A risk assessment for the community is pending. The cleanup is expected to continue for years.