In a unanimous decision, the Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday determined that BNSF Railway Company is not shielded from liability for its role in spreading asbestos-laden dust in the Northwest Montana town of Libby, where hundreds of people have died and thousands more are sick due to exposure.
Facing hundreds of asbestos-related damage claims stemming from the operations of a now-shuttered vermiculite mine and its alleged role in shipping contaminated materials across the country, BNSF appealed a January 2019 ruling by Montana Asbestos Claims Court Judge Amy Eddy, of Kalispell, who concluded the plaintiffs’ claims against BNSF are not preempted by federal law, as BNSF argued, and that the company is not exempt from liability.
BNSF appealed Eddy’s decision and asked the state Supreme Court to overturn it, with both parties delivering oral arguments last October.
According to Justice Jim Rice, who delivered the March 11 opinion, “BNSF is subject to strict liability because its actions in handling the asbestos constitute an abnormally dangerous activity.”
Two decades ago, the scope of asbestos exposure in Libby came to light when news reports detailed a link between the deadly fibers unearthed at a vermiculite mine operated by W.R. Grace and Co. between 1963 and 1990 and the hundreds of people who were sick and dying because of exposure to asbestos-laden dust.
Two of the diseases most commonly associated with asbestos — asbestosis and mesothelioma — have latency periods of up to 40 years, and people who were exposed to the asbestos dust continue to develop illnesses today.
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