BUTTE, Mont. — A Montana jury has awarded $36.5 million in damages to an Oregon man who suffers from lung disease because of exposure to asbestos while working at a vermiculite mine in Libby, a bellwether case that could affect hundreds of additional claims filed against the company that once provided the mine’s workers’ compensation coverage.
The Great Falls jury last week awarded $6.5 million in compensatory damages and $30 million in punitive damages to Ralph Hutt of Roseburg, The Montana Standard reported.
Hutt was one of more than 800 plaintiffs who filed lawsuits against Maryland Casualty Co., which provided the workers’ compensation insurance coverage for the W.R. Grace & Co. mine from 1963-1973. Maryland Casualty also made worker safety recommendations and suggested workers undergo annual chest X-rays.
W.R. Grace operated the vermiculite mine and processing operations in Libby from 1963 to 1990.
Judge Amy Eddy, who oversees a special asbestos claims court in Montana, chose Hutt’s case as the lead case to help settle some of the complex legal questions and set parameters for the other cases against Maryland Casualty, which is now owned by Zurich Insurance.
Zurich does not comment on litigation, spokesperson Robyn Ziegler said.
Hutt’s case went to trial after the Montana Supreme Court ruled in March 2020 that Maryland Casualty should have warned Hutt and other workers about the risk of exposure to airborne asbestos — the needle-shaped fibers that are easily inhaled and damage lungs, causing scarring and shortness of breath decades after exposure.
The justices noted that in an internal Maryland Casualty memo an assigned insurance defense counsel recommended settling a 1967 workers’ compensation case against Grace to avoid exposing “all of the more damaging aspects of our own situation.”
Hutt worked for W. R. Grace’s Zonolite Division for 18 months in 1968 and 1969. He first experienced respiratory problems in 1990 while working as a logger at higher altitudes.
Hutt now requires nearly continuous use of supplemental oxygen due to asbestosis.
“If I go to the bathroom, I can make it back here (to his living room chair),” he testified at trial, saying he then has to put his oxygen back on and catch his breath.
Hutt’s case made it to trial more than two decades after the first news reports about the asbestos in Libby, the lung damage and hundreds of deaths caused by inhaling asbestos fibers, not only by mine workers but their families and other residents of the northwestern Montana town.