BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Attorneys for asbestos victims in a Montana mining town are seeking more than $4 million in fees and expenses out of a legal settlement with chemical company W.R. Grace that was intended 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.
Asbestos dust from the mine once blanketed the town, and contaminated mine waste was widely used by residents and local officials in construction projects, as a soil supplement in home gardens and for other purposes.
In documents submitted to the court, the plaintiffs' attorneys described their fee request as reasonable given the time and effort they put into lawsuits filed against Grace.
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 cover medical expenses.
Total 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 documents filed by the attorneys. The attorneys said they were entitled to up to 40 percent of their client's share of the settlement under their retainer contracts, but opted for a lesser percentage that would come from all qualifying victims and not just the attorneys' clients.
The attorneys are from 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.
A separate legal settlement between Libby victims and the state of Montana to cover damages for failing to intervene sooner included $14 million in attorney fees.
The medical trust fund set up with the Grace settlement funds has enough money to last about five years, said trust administrator and Missoula attorney Nancy Gibson.
Yet 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 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."
The trust money is being used to cover the victims' premiums for Medicare or comparable private insurance policies, Gibson said.
Some victims have complained that the attorneys' fees are too high, taking money that would otherwise go to helping victims. "These lawyers want and want and want," said Michael Crill, a former Libby resident now living in Missoula who was not a plaintiff in the case but indicated he was a trust beneficiary.
Crill added in a letter to Judge Wheelis that the trust was the only means to pay for the medical care keeping him alive.
But Gibson said the fee request was not out of line given the time and effort the attorneys put into the case. She added the attorneys have been working unpaid to persuade Medicare administrators to forgive money owed to the government by some victims.
W.R. Grace previously covered the medical expenses that have been assumed by the trust, costing the company about $2 million annually since 2000, soon after the scope of Libby's contamination was revealed.
A subsequent cleanup of the town and surrounding areas by the Environmental Protection Agency has cost more than $447 million to date and is expected to last at least several more years.