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Settling liability

The Baltimore Sun

The enormous settlement in the protracted litigation involving W. R. Grace & Co. and thousands of asbestos victims offers something positive for all sides. Even at an estimated cost of more than $3 billion, the deal should help move the company out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, where it sought protection in 2001. And while no amount of money can end the pain of losing a loved one or suffering poor health because of exposure to toxic products, at least victims and their families will receive some compensation.

Grace, based in Columbia, faced more than 100,000 personal injury claims because of asbestos in its building materials and fire protection products before 1973, when the substance, which has caused lung cancer and other illnesses, was deemed harmful enough for legal action. Mass tort lawsuits can drag on for years, gumming up the courts and enriching attorneys rather than plaintiffs. Yet significant reforms have been elusive. Faced with ongoing uncertainty and risk of loss, companies and plaintiffs most often reach agreements.

In this case, Grace's estimated liability ranged from $385 million to more than $6 billion. The company proposed, and the bankruptcy judge accepted, some reasonable measures, including a lengthy questionnaire to help determine who had been harmed by its products. Now, if the judge and a majority of claimants agree - which they should - Grace will pay until 2034 into a trust fund from which past, present and future victims can seek fair compensation.

Grace officials note that getting out from under the lawsuit and bankruptcy proceedings will allow the global company that employs 1,100 people in Maryland to focus solely on making the best products for its customers. Yet customers - and asbestos victims - would rightly add that those products must be as safe as possible. That would be a winning combination.

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