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Montana Asbestos Victims Object To Attorneys' Fees

By MATTHEW BROWN

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) â¿¿ Some victims of asbestos exposure in northwestern Montana have asked a state judge to deny $4 million in fees and costs requested by attorneys in a legal settlement with chemical manufacturer W.R. Grace and Co.

In letters submitted to state District Court Judge James Wheelis, about 20 people, including victims, said the money should instead be spent on medical care for those sickened by asbestos dust from a Grace mine near Libby.

Three letter writers supported the fee request.

Court officials said Monday that a ruling from Wheelis is pending after a two-week comment period expired Friday. Wheelis opened the comment period following a March 1 fairness hearing on the fee request.

The attorneys' request equals about 20 percent of last year's $19.6 million settlement with Grace over decades of asbestos exposure that has killed an estimated 400 people and sickened more than 2,000. Asbestos dust from the mine once blanketed the town, exposing both mine workers and unknowing residents.

A separate legal settlement between asbestos victims and the state of Montana to cover damages for failing to intervene sooner in Libby included $14 million in attorney fees.

Angela Young, a Libby resident who said she's attached to an oxygen tank 24-hours-a-day to help ease her asbestos-caused lung problems, told Wheelis that the plaintiffs' lawyers have gotten enough money for their work.

"Yes the lawyers should be and have been compensated," Young wrote. But "the lawyers are not the ones who are afflicted. There are many suffering victims that can use the money more effectively in their daily struggles to live a semi-normal life."

Among those writing in support of the attorneys' request was Libby resident and longtime victim advocate Gayla Benefield. She praised the attorneys for sticking with the case even after Grace went bankrupt.

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