Asbestos court is welcome, overdue

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Itís been a long and often agonizing ordeal for sufferers of Libby asbestos-related disease to get compensation through the legal system.

W.R. Grace & Co. exposed thousands of people in the Libby area to the toxic, needle-like asbestos fibers that silently lodged in victimsí lungs while the company cashed in on decades of vermiculite mining. Getting financial settlements to cover ongoing medical bills caused by that exposure has been anything but easy.

Asbestos victims got some good news this week, though, when the Montana Supreme Court issued an order creating an asbestos claims court to resolve hundreds of Libby asbestos-related cases pending in the stateís trial courts.

The high courtís order places all pending asbestos cases into a specialty court. Flathead District Judge Amy Eddy will preside over the court initially, handling pre-trial proceedings. The goal is to expedite the process for the 600 pending asbestos cases, but there likely are many more cases out there, the high court acknowledged.

Consolidating the cases will allow discovery and settlement discussions to proceed more quickly. Thatís good news for Libby victims. Any cases that are not settled will be tried in the judicial district in which the cases originated.

The Montana Legislature, to its credit, passed the Asbestos Claims Court Act in 2001 to help expedite the legal process, but shortly after that Grace filed for bankruptcy protection and court cases were put on hold for about 13 years. We donít know how many victims perished while waiting for some measure of compensation.

Litigating asbestos claims is complicated, lawyers say, because of the latency period with asbestos disease. Claims must be filed within three years from the day of diagnosis, but it may take years for the disease to progress.

It will still be a waiting game for many Libby victims, but the asbestos claims court provides a much-needed way to more efficiently manage the asbestos caseload.

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