BILLINGS (AP) — Attorneys for asbestos victims in a Montana mining town are seeking more than $4 million in fees and costs out of a legal settlement with chemical company W.R. Grace that was set up to cover the victims' ongoing medical costs.
State District Judge James Wheelis has ordered a March 1 fairness hearing on the request, recently submitted by a group of lawyers who said they sunk more than 16,000 hours of work into the case over 11 years.
Last year's settlement followed decades of asbestos exposure from a Grace mine outside the town of Libby that so far has killed an estimated 400 people and sickened more than 2,000.
In documents submitted to the court, the attorneys seeking to recover fees described their request as reasonable.
It equals about 20 percent of the $19.6 million that Maryland-based Grace last year agreed to put into a trust fund set up to help Libby residents with medical problems. The total amount of costs and fees requested topped $5 million, but almost $1 million of that amount would be returned for the benefit of the victims, according to the attorneys.
They include members of three law firms: McGarvey, Heberling, Sullivan and McGarvey P.C. of Kalispell; Lewis, Slovak, Kovachich and Marr P.C. of Great Falls; and Murtha Cullina LLP, which has offices in multiple locations across the U.S.
A medical trust fund established through the settlement has enough money to last about five years, said trust administrator and Missoula attorney Nancy Gibson.
Because of the long latency period for asbestos-related diseases, it could be many years before some people diagnosed in Libby develop medical complications. That means the trust could be depleted by the time some people need it, although Gibson said still-pending litigation involving Libby could result in more money coming in at some point in the future.
"We're looking at stretching it out as long as funds are there to keep coverage in place," she said. "Hopefully there will be other funds that supplement this."
W.R. Grace previously covered the medical expenses that have been assumed by the trust, costing the company about $2 million annually.
A separate legal settlement with the state for failing to intervene promptly in Libby included $14 million in attorney fees.