Vermiculite is a naturally occurring silicate mineral commonly found in an asbestos-laden rock formation known as Vermiculite Mountain in Montana. The mineral expands when heated, which allows it to absorb three to four times its own volume in water. This property makes it useful as a plant potting medium, and it has been widely sold for this and other purposes.
Not all vermiculate is contaminated with asbestos, but about 75% of the vermiculite sold in the U.S. came from Vermiculite Mountain and did contain asbestos. The mine at Vermiculite Mountain was run by W.R. Grace and closed in the 1990s.
Thousands of workers and their families have been exposed to asbestos through the mine since the 1960s. Many have been injured or have developed lung diseases like mesothelioma from this exposure. Much of their exposure was airborne, as the mining activities released asbestos into the air.
Between 1963 and 1973, an insurance company called Maryland Casualty Company provided W.R. Grace with workers’ compensation insurance. According to a recent lawsuit, workers at W.R. Grace’s Zonolite (vermiculite) division showed symptoms of lung disease in 1964. That same year, a local doctor notified W.R. Grace that its workers were developing lung illnesses associated with asbestos exposure.
Hundreds of workers sought to hold Maryland Casualty partially responsible for their illnesses and injuries. They argued that Maryland Casualty knew of the risk posed by workplace asbestos exposure but failed to warn the workers. According to the Montana Supreme Court, Maryland Casualty had already done extensive work relating to asbestos exposure, such as writing safety protocols and health-monitoring programs for specific employees.
A Montana Asbestos Claims Court judge ruled in 2017 that Maryland Casualty was liable for the plaintiff workers’ asbestos injuries. Maryland Casualty appealed.
As a workers’ comp insurer, it argued it had no legal duty to warn the workers of the asbestos risk. That duty, it said, fell exclusively on W.R. Grace.
The Montana Supreme Court disagreed. Since Maryland Casualty had, of its own free will, created safety protocols and monitored certain workers’ health, the company owed W.R. Grace’s employees a duty towarn them about known harms of asbestos exposure.
The court sent the case back to the Asbestos Claims Court to determine whether Maryland Casualty breached that duty, and, if it did, whether the failure to warn the workers caused their injury and damages.
All too often, companies that profited from asbestos-tainted materials refuse to acknowledge their role in injuring workers or consumers. Through this decision, the Montana Supreme Court is holding at least one company accountable for its actions.