Buffett’s Railway in Court Fight Over Asbestos Exposure Claims

Buffett's Railway in Court Fight Over Asbestos Exposure Claims

Attorneys representing a railway owned by Warren Buffett are set to present arguments before a jury regarding the company’s alleged responsibility in the transportation of asbestos that reportedly sickened and caused fatalities in a Montana town. BNSF Railway, now owned by Berkshire Hathaway, has contested that its predecessors were unaware of the hazardous asbestos fibers in the vermiculite they transported from a local mine in Libby, Montana, before the acquisition by Buffett’s firm in 2010.

The extent of BNSF’s knowledge concerning the health risks associated with these shipments, dating back to the EPA’s declaration of a public health emergency at the Libby site in 2009, is the focal point of an ongoing civil trial that commenced on April 8. Health officials have concluded that the contaminated vermiculite was linked to over 3,000 illnesses and several hundred deaths.

Asbestos exposure, as per the Mayo Clinic, can result in lung scarring and breathing difficulties, leading to conditions like Asbestosis and various forms of lung cancer. The tragic case of Thomas Wells, a former U.S. Forest Service employee diagnosed with mesothelioma at 65 following his employment in Libby during the 1970s, highlights the severe consequences of such exposure.

Moreover, the family of another victim, Joyce Walder, shared a heartbreaking story as she succumbed to mesothelioma shortly after diagnosis, underscoring the devastating impact of asbestos-related illnesses. Despite these harrowing accounts, BNSF has refrained from commenting on the ongoing legal proceedings.

Importantly, W.R. Grace & Co., the company operating the vermiculite mine near Libby until 1990, plays a crucial role in the trial. The firm has settled lawsuits with victims and paid substantial sums, including a $34 million settlement in 2007, to address cleanup costs at multiple contaminated sites across the U.S.

The EPA intervened in Libby in 1999 due to environmental concerns and eventually declared a public health emergency in the town in 2009. While cleanup efforts have been undertaken, the financial burden has largely fallen on the public. The courtroom discussions have underscored the distinct liabilities of W.R. Grace and BNSF in this environmental catastrophe.

Though W.R. Grace executives faced legal charges related to the contamination, they were ultimately acquitted. BNSF’s defense centers on its legal obligation to transport vermiculite and the alleged lack of transparency from W.R. Grace regarding asbestos contamination. Former railroad employees have testified that they were unaware of the health risks associated with asbestos exposure, shedding light on the complex web of accountability surrounding this long-standing issue.


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