Two lawyers with the Knight Nicastro firm said they are representing one client and consulting with others exposed to asbestos at McGill Hall, including parents of students at its preschool who were relocated last week after "unacceptable levels'' of asbestos were found.
Lawyers Jim Roberts and Adam Duerk did not identify their client, who they said approached them. They said they are meeting with others to answer questions about potential legal remedies and have begun reviewing documents, test results and other actions the University of Montana has taken since asbestos was discovered at McGill in December.
"This is a big deal. I attended the university. Adam attended the university. We have friends and family that attended the university," Roberts said of UM.
Plus, Duerk said the lawyers have friends and family members who work at the flagship.
"We care about whether they are exposed to asbestos as well," said Duerk, a former assistant U.S. attorney.
UM law professor Cynthia Ford said the law firm's public announcement is a way to reach other potential clients who have legal questions.
"Obviously, publicizing that you are looking at this for some clients would give a name to other people who might not know where to go," said Ford, who noted she knows Duerk personally.
In September, the firm announced it had successfully defended BNSF against a claim filed by a Missoula engineer. According to the firm, the plaintiff alleged he had been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease caused by his work for BNSF in and around Libby, and he sought $1.67 million.
Ford said the firm's decision to represent a client claiming harm from asbestos exposure at UM is common for attorneys. She said she herself previously worked both sides of asbestos cases, and lawyers gain expertise in particular areas.
"So whether you're on one side or the other side of an asbestos case, you are exposed to the same basic science, medicine," Ford said. "And so you trade sides in law."
In this instance, Duerk said the firm's experience on the defense can be an advantage.
"There is a long history of lawyers with years of defense work who know how these cases function that will take on righteous plaintiffs' cases knowing how they should be handled," Duerk said.
Knight Nicastro describes itself as a national litigation firm with offices in Montana, Colorado and Missouri. Last month, the firm announced it had hired three lawyers in Missoula, including Roberts and Duerk.
On its website, the firm notes Duerk has prosecuted complex environmental and criminal fraud cases, and Roberts served a decade as senior general attorney for BNSF Railway Co. and previously focused on civil litigation.
Knight Nicastro posted on Feb. 1 an announcement that its attorneys had consulted with families affected by asbestos in McGill Hall, and noted more than 100 years of experience in asbestos litigation.
Last Tuesday, UM relocated 47 preschool children from McGill to the College of Education in response to test results that showed asbestos levels far exceeding a federal cleanup threshold for residences.
Asbestos can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, but the latency period can be 10 to 40 years.
Roberts said the lawyers are in the early stages of their review. He said they are looking at documents provided by UM, learning about testing, and asking questions about how different players came to be involved and whether the public has all the available test results.
He also said the case might never end up in litigation. In general, Roberts said clients sometimes seek "equitable remedies," or a requirement that another party start or stop taking a particular action. "Sometimes, that's a client's only goal," Roberts said.
In this case, UM officials have said they did not conduct routine inspections for asbestos, even in buildings that are known to have the substance. A UM director has said the campus will revise its inspection protocol, but at an informational meeting last week, at least one parent asked UM to start doing actual testing for asbestos on campus on a routine basis.
In its announcement, the firm noted it understands the legal remedies for affected parties. Duerk said it would be unusual for a law firm to investigate asbestos "in real time" because of the latency period.
"But it's important to get out in front of these types of cases to take care of the kids and families, first and foremost," Duerk said.