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Jury: BNSF Railway contributed to 2 deaths in Montana town where asbestos sickened thousands

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Jury: BNSF Railway contributed to 2 deaths in Montana town where asbestos sickened thousands
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Jury: BNSF Railway contributed to 2 deaths in Montana town where asbestos sickened thousands

2024-04-23 08:29 Last Updated At:08:30

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A federal jury on Monday said BNSF Railway contributed to the deaths of two people who were exposed to asbestos decades ago when tainted mining material was shipped through a Montana town where thousands have been sickened.

The jury awarded $4 million each in compensatory damages to the estates of the two plaintiffs, who died in 2020. Jurors said asbestos-contaminated vermiculite that spilled in the rail yard in the town of Libby, Montana was a substantial factor in the plaintiffs’ illnesses and deaths.

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FILE - An aerial view of the town of Libby, Mont., Feb. 17, 2010. Libby, the town of 3,000 along the Kootenai River has emerged as one of deadliest Superfund pollution sites in the nation's history. A jury on Monday, April 22, 2024, sided with plaintiffs who said BNSF Railway contributed to the deaths of two people exposed to asbestos in Libby decades ago. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A federal jury on Monday said BNSF Railway contributed to the deaths of two people who were exposed to asbestos decades ago when tainted mining material was shipped through a Montana town where thousands have been sickened.

A respiratory therapist left, conducts a pulmonary test on a woman at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, April 4, 2024, in Libby, Mont. The clinic has diagnosed thousands of people with asbestos-related disease following contamination from a nearby mine for vermiculite. A federal jury on Monday, April 22, said BNSF Railway contributed to the deaths in 2020 of two people who were exposed to asbestos in the Libby area decades ago. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

A respiratory therapist left, conducts a pulmonary test on a woman at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, April 4, 2024, in Libby, Mont. The clinic has diagnosed thousands of people with asbestos-related disease following contamination from a nearby mine for vermiculite. A federal jury on Monday, April 22, said BNSF Railway contributed to the deaths in 2020 of two people who were exposed to asbestos in the Libby area decades ago. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

FILE - Environmental cleanup specialists work at one of the last remaining residential asbestos cleanup sites in Libby, Montana, in mid-September. BNSF Railway attorneys are expected to argue before jurors Friday, April 19, 2024, that the railroad should not be held liable for the lung cancer deaths of two former residents of the asbestos-contaminated Montana town, one of the deadliest sites in the federal Superfund pollution program. (Kurt Wilson/The Missoulian via AP, File)

FILE - Environmental cleanup specialists work at one of the last remaining residential asbestos cleanup sites in Libby, Montana, in mid-September. BNSF Railway attorneys are expected to argue before jurors Friday, April 19, 2024, that the railroad should not be held liable for the lung cancer deaths of two former residents of the asbestos-contaminated Montana town, one of the deadliest sites in the federal Superfund pollution program. (Kurt Wilson/The Missoulian via AP, File)

FILE - Dr. Lee Morissette shows an image of lungs damaged by asbestos exposure, at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Libby, Mont. BNSF Railway attorneys are expected to argue before jurors Friday, April 19, 2024, that the railroad should not be held liable for the lung cancer deaths of two former residents of the asbestos-contaminated Montana town, one of the deadliest sites in the federal Superfund pollution program. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

FILE - Dr. Lee Morissette shows an image of lungs damaged by asbestos exposure, at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Libby, Mont. BNSF Railway attorneys are expected to argue before jurors Friday, April 19, 2024, that the railroad should not be held liable for the lung cancer deaths of two former residents of the asbestos-contaminated Montana town, one of the deadliest sites in the federal Superfund pollution program. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

Jury: BNSF Railway contributed to 2 deaths in Montana town where asbestos sickened thousands

Jury: BNSF Railway contributed to 2 deaths in Montana town where asbestos sickened thousands

Jury: BNSF Railway contributed to 2 deaths in Montana town where asbestos sickened thousands

Jury: BNSF Railway contributed to 2 deaths in Montana town where asbestos sickened thousands

FILE - In this April 27, 2011, file photo, the entrance to downtown Libby, Mont., is seen. BNSF Railway attorneys are expected to argue before jurors Friday, April 19, 2024, that the railroad should not be held liable for the lung cancer deaths of two former residents of the asbestos-contaminated Montana town, one of the deadliest sites in the federal Superfund pollution program. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

FILE - In this April 27, 2011, file photo, the entrance to downtown Libby, Mont., is seen. BNSF Railway attorneys are expected to argue before jurors Friday, April 19, 2024, that the railroad should not be held liable for the lung cancer deaths of two former residents of the asbestos-contaminated Montana town, one of the deadliest sites in the federal Superfund pollution program. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

Family members of the two victims hugged their attorneys after the verdict was announced. An attorney for the plaintiffs said the ruling brought some accountability, but one family member told The Associated Press that no amount of money would replace her lost sister.

“I’d rather have her than all the money in the world,” Judith Hemphill said of her sister, Joyce Walder.

The vermiculite from Libby has high concentrations of naturally-occurring asbestos and was used in insulation and for other commercial purposes in homes and businesses across the U.S.

After being mined from a mountaintop outside town, it was loaded onto rail cars that sometimes spilled the material in the Libby rail yard. Residents have described piles of vermiculite being stored in the yard and dust from the facility blowing through downtown Libby.

The jury did not find that BNSF acted intentionally or with indifference so no punitive damages were awarded. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. acquired BNSF in 2010, two decades after the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine near Libby shut down and stopped shipping the contaminated mineral.

The estates of the two victims argued that the railroad knew the asbestos-tainted vermiculite was dangerous and failed to clean it up. Both lived near the rail yard decades ago and died from mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

The pollution in Libby has been cleaned up, largely at public expense. W.R. Grace, which played a central role in the town’s tragedy, filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and paid $1.8 billion into an asbestos trust fund to settle future cases.

Yet the long timeframe over which asbestos-related diseases develop means people previously exposed are likely to continue getting sick for years to come, health officials say.

The case in federal civil court over the two deaths was the first of numerous lawsuits against the Texas-based railroad corporation to reach trial over its past operations in Libby. Current and former residents of the small town near the U.S.-Canada border want BNSF held accountable, accusing it of playing a role in asbestos exposure that health officials say has killed several hundred people and sickened thousands.

“This is good news. This is the first community exposure case that will hold the railroad accountable for what they’ve done,” said Mark Lanier, an attorney for Walder and Hemphill's estates.

The railroad was considering whether to appeal, said a BNSF spokesperson, who referred to it as a “very sad case.”

"They (the jury) had the difficult task of evaluating conduct that occurred more than 50 years ago, before BNSF ever existed,” said Kendall Sloan, the railroad's director of external communications.

BNSF attorney Chad Knight told jurors last week the railroad's employees didn’t know the vermiculite was filled with hazardous microscopic asbestos fibers.

“In the ‘50s, ’60s and '70s no one in the public suspected there might be health concerns,” Knight said Friday.

The railroad’s experts also suggested during the trial that the plaintiffs could have been exposed to asbestos elsewhere.

The railroad said it was obliged under law to ship the vermiculite, which was used in insulation and for other commercial purposes, and that W.R. Grace employees had concealed the health hazards from the railroad.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris had instructed the jury it could only find the railroad negligent based on its actions in the Libby Railyard, not for hauling the vermiculite.

Former Libby resident Bill Johnston, who followed the trial, said he was glad the victims' estates got a substantial award.

Johnston, 67, recalled playing in piles of vermiculite at the rail yard as a child and helping his father add piles of the material to their home garden, where it was used as a soil amendment. He, his two siblings and their parents have all been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, Johnston said Monday.

“They didn't do anything intentionally to cause this harm to their body. Other people knew about it and didn't care,” he said of Libby asbestos victims. “What's that worth? It's hard to put a value on that. But when you say you're going to die prematurely or the life you have left is going to be tethered to an oxygen bottle, there should be some value that makes their life easier in the end.”

BNSF was formed in 1995 from the merger of Burlington Northern railroad, which operated in Libby for decades, and the Santa Fe Pacific Corporation.

Looming over the proceedings was W.R. Grace, which operated the mountaintop vermiculite mine 7 miles (11 kilometers) outside of Libby until it closed in 1990. Morris referred to the chemical company as “the elephant in the room” during the BNSF trial and reminded jurors repeatedly that the case was about the railroad’s conduct, not W.R. Grace’s separate liability.

Federal prosecutors in 2005 indicted W. R. Grace and executives from the company on criminal charges over the contamination in Libby. A jury acquitted them following a 2009 trial.

The Environmental Protection Agency descended on Libby after 1999 news reports of illnesses and deaths among mine workers and their families. In 2009 the agency declared in Libby the nation’s first ever public health emergency under the federal Superfund cleanup program.

A second trial against the railroad over the death of a Libby resident is scheduled for May in federal court in Missoula.

FILE - An aerial view of the town of Libby, Mont., Feb. 17, 2010. Libby, the town of 3,000 along the Kootenai River has emerged as one of deadliest Superfund pollution sites in the nation's history. A jury on Monday, April 22, 2024, sided with plaintiffs who said BNSF Railway contributed to the deaths of two people exposed to asbestos in Libby decades ago. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

FILE - An aerial view of the town of Libby, Mont., Feb. 17, 2010. Libby, the town of 3,000 along the Kootenai River has emerged as one of deadliest Superfund pollution sites in the nation's history. A jury on Monday, April 22, 2024, sided with plaintiffs who said BNSF Railway contributed to the deaths of two people exposed to asbestos in Libby decades ago. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

A respiratory therapist left, conducts a pulmonary test on a woman at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, April 4, 2024, in Libby, Mont. The clinic has diagnosed thousands of people with asbestos-related disease following contamination from a nearby mine for vermiculite. A federal jury on Monday, April 22, said BNSF Railway contributed to the deaths in 2020 of two people who were exposed to asbestos in the Libby area decades ago. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

A respiratory therapist left, conducts a pulmonary test on a woman at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, April 4, 2024, in Libby, Mont. The clinic has diagnosed thousands of people with asbestos-related disease following contamination from a nearby mine for vermiculite. A federal jury on Monday, April 22, said BNSF Railway contributed to the deaths in 2020 of two people who were exposed to asbestos in the Libby area decades ago. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

FILE - Environmental cleanup specialists work at one of the last remaining residential asbestos cleanup sites in Libby, Montana, in mid-September. BNSF Railway attorneys are expected to argue before jurors Friday, April 19, 2024, that the railroad should not be held liable for the lung cancer deaths of two former residents of the asbestos-contaminated Montana town, one of the deadliest sites in the federal Superfund pollution program. (Kurt Wilson/The Missoulian via AP, File)

FILE - Environmental cleanup specialists work at one of the last remaining residential asbestos cleanup sites in Libby, Montana, in mid-September. BNSF Railway attorneys are expected to argue before jurors Friday, April 19, 2024, that the railroad should not be held liable for the lung cancer deaths of two former residents of the asbestos-contaminated Montana town, one of the deadliest sites in the federal Superfund pollution program. (Kurt Wilson/The Missoulian via AP, File)

FILE - Dr. Lee Morissette shows an image of lungs damaged by asbestos exposure, at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Libby, Mont. BNSF Railway attorneys are expected to argue before jurors Friday, April 19, 2024, that the railroad should not be held liable for the lung cancer deaths of two former residents of the asbestos-contaminated Montana town, one of the deadliest sites in the federal Superfund pollution program. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

FILE - Dr. Lee Morissette shows an image of lungs damaged by asbestos exposure, at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease, Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Libby, Mont. BNSF Railway attorneys are expected to argue before jurors Friday, April 19, 2024, that the railroad should not be held liable for the lung cancer deaths of two former residents of the asbestos-contaminated Montana town, one of the deadliest sites in the federal Superfund pollution program. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

Jury: BNSF Railway contributed to 2 deaths in Montana town where asbestos sickened thousands

Jury: BNSF Railway contributed to 2 deaths in Montana town where asbestos sickened thousands

Jury: BNSF Railway contributed to 2 deaths in Montana town where asbestos sickened thousands

Jury: BNSF Railway contributed to 2 deaths in Montana town where asbestos sickened thousands

FILE - In this April 27, 2011, file photo, the entrance to downtown Libby, Mont., is seen. BNSF Railway attorneys are expected to argue before jurors Friday, April 19, 2024, that the railroad should not be held liable for the lung cancer deaths of two former residents of the asbestos-contaminated Montana town, one of the deadliest sites in the federal Superfund pollution program. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

FILE - In this April 27, 2011, file photo, the entrance to downtown Libby, Mont., is seen. BNSF Railway attorneys are expected to argue before jurors Friday, April 19, 2024, that the railroad should not be held liable for the lung cancer deaths of two former residents of the asbestos-contaminated Montana town, one of the deadliest sites in the federal Superfund pollution program. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

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Fani Willis and judge presiding over Georgia Trump election case defeat challengers

2024-05-22 10:09 Last Updated At:10:10

ATLANTA (AP) — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, the Georgia prosecutor who brought a sprawling racketeering case against former President Donald Trump and others, has won the Democratic primary in her bid for reelection.

Willis defeated progressive attorney Christian Wise Smith in the primary election and is now set to face off against Republican Courtney Kramer in the fall. Willis told reporters after her victory that the voters sent a message that “people want a DA that is just, that treats everybody equally and that works hard, and they know that they have that in me.”

Meanwhile, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, the judge who was randomly assigned to preside over the election interference case, also fended off a challenger, winning a nonpartisan election to keep his seat.

The Trump election case and racketeering cases against well-known rappers have boosted Willis’ public profile. But on Tuesday night she touted her efforts to fight violent crime by being tough on gang members while also saying she worked to give second chances to first offenders and created programs to catch at-risk youth before they get caught up in the criminal justice system.

“The people said yes to justice. The people said yes to safety. The people said yes to integrity. The people said yes to Fani Willis," Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said to applause Tuesday night at Willis' victory party.

With her name recognition, the advantages of incumbency and a hefty fundraising haul, Willis’ victory in the primary was not terribly surprising. As she moves on to the general election, the odds would seem to be in her favor as well. Fulton County includes most of the city of Atlanta and is heavily Democratic, about 73% of its voters having cast ballots for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election.

But Willis was taking nothing for granted after her primary win, telling supporters, “The campaign does not end tonight. It begins tonight.”

“My opponent is completely unqualified,” she said, later adding, “But while she is inexperienced and unqualified and does not represent the values of my county, don't get confused. She is a real threat because of who backs her and how they back her.”

Willis urged her supporters to continue to back her financially, noting that there was a store selling campaign merchandise onsite during her victory party.

Kramer, who has ties to some of Trump’s most prominent allies in Georgia and has drawn campaign contributions from both the county and state Republican parties, told reporters when she qualified to run that the Trump indictment prompted her to challenge Willis. In a post on the social media platform X earlier this month, she wrote, “The future of Fulton and safety in our community should not be controlled by self-interested politicians who use their office for political law fare. It’s time for a change.”

McAfee has been on the bench since last year when Republican Gov. Brian Kemp appointed him to fill an empty seat. He has since become one of the most high-profile judges in Georgia since he was randomly assigned last year to preside over the election interference case. With the added advantages of incumbency, strong bipartisan backing from heavy hitters and an impressive fundraising haul, he was the likely favorite to win.

Willis and Smith both worked in the Fulton County district attorney’s office under then-District Attorney Paul Howard. They both challenged their former boss in the Democratic primary in 2020. Willis and Howard advanced to a runoff that she won, and she ran unopposed in the November general election that year.

Kramer ran unopposed in the Republican primary Tuesday and has already been focusing her attention on attacking Willis. A lawyer who interned in the Trump White House, she has ties to some of the former president's prominent allies in Georgia.

Kramer and her backers will undoubtedly continue to focus on what even some of Willis' closest allies have seen as a major misstep — her romantic relationship with a special prosecutor she hired for the election case. Claims by defense attorneys in the case that the romance created a conflict of interest threatened to derail the prosecution.

McAfee ultimately ruled that it did not create a conflict of interest that should disqualify Willis, but he said she could only continue the case if the special prosecutor, Nathan Wade, stepped aside. Wade promptly left the case, but a defense appeal of McAfee's ruling is now pending before the Georgia Court of Appeals.

Wade was among those gathered at an event space in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood Tuesday evening to celebrate Willis' win.

Willis obtained an indictment in August against Trump and 18 others, accusing them of participating in an alleged illegal scheme to overturn Trump's narrow loss in the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. Four people have pleaded guilty after reaching deals with prosecutors. Trump and the 14 others who remain have pleaded not guilty.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks after winning re-election in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks after winning re-election in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks to the media after winning the Democratic primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks to the media after winning the Democratic primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks after winning re-election in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks after winning re-election in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis celebrates winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis celebrates winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens takes a photograph with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis before she speaks and after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens takes a photograph with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis before she speaks and after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis celebrates with supporters after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis celebrates with supporters after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis arrives before she speaks after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis arrives before she speaks after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis arrives before she speaks after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis arrives before she speaks after winning re-election in the primary on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Buckhead, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

In this photo combination of file images, Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee presides in court, left, while Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, right, looks on during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case, March, 1, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photos/Alex Slitz)

In this photo combination of file images, Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee presides in court, left, while Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, right, looks on during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case, March, 1, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photos/Alex Slitz)

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