9th Circuit reverses several pretrial rulings in W.R. Grace case

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – A federal appeals court panel reversed a number of pretrial rulings Thursday in the government’s asbestos case against W.R. Grace & Co.

The three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s ruling that federal prosecutors could not allege the company and former top officials conspired to “knowingly endanger” miners and residents of the town of Libby by exposing them to asbestos.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula had ruled the time allotted under federal law for the government to pursue that allegation had expired. He said the government failed to allege the defendants committed an overt act to knowingly endanger others within the five-year statute of limitations that began in 1999.

In its decision, the panel disagreed.

“The district court dismissed the knowing endangerment object in the original indictment as ‘time-barred’ because it failed to allege an overt act within the statue of limitations, not because the indictment was untimely filed,” the three-judge panel wrote. “The district court erred.”

The case involves public exposure to asbestos in the Libby area, where Grace used to operate a mine.

A 2005 indictment charged Grace and seven of its former managers, one of whom died in February, with conspiring to conceal health risks posed years ago by the company’s Libby vermiculite mine, closed since 1990. Hundreds of people in Libby have fallen sick, some fatally, from exposure to asbestos in vermiculite.

Thursday’s rulings were among two appeals stemming from pretrial decisions. In July, a 9th Circuit panel reversed a ruling by Molloy that required federal prosecutors to produce a pretrial list of non-expert witnesses. The panel said the district court had “exceeded its authority.”