Asbestos victims offered billions

W.R. Grace reaches deal to settle suits, clear bankruptcy

April 08, 2008|By Andrea K. Walker and Paul Adams | Andrea K. Walker and Paul Adams,SUN REPORTERS

W.R. Grace & Co. said yesterday that it has reached a deal that could be worth more than $3 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits by people who say they were sickened by exposure to the company's asbestos products.

The deal potentially clears a path for the Columbia-based chemical maker to emerge by year's end from one of the most complex bankruptcy reorganizations in U.S. history.

The accord, which would depend on approval by a bankruptcy judge in Pittsburgh, would establish a trust fund to pay current and future asbestos claims, which date back decades to when the company produced and sold products containing the substance.

Grace, which employs 6,500 people in 40 countries, sought bankruptcy protection in 2001 after being confronted by thousands of such claims.

"It's a significant recovery, but certainly not enough," said John D. Cooney, an attorney who helped negotiate the deal for victims. "In the final analysis, nothing will really compensate for people who lose their husbands or wives."

Cooney put the value of the settlement at more than $3 billion when cash, stock warrants, insurance payments and other elements are factored in.

Grace executives said they could not put a dollar figure on the deal because the company will make payments over many years.

In a conference call with analysts, Grace Chairman Fred Festa said the agreement allows the company to "once and for all" determine its asbestos liability, which consultants hired by the company and claimants had previously estimated at $385 million to $6.2 billion.

Uncertainty over the lawsuits and restrictions placed on the company in bankruptcy have hampered its growth for years. Grace faced 110,000 claims when it declared bankruptcy.

"It will take all further encumbrances away from us," Festa said in a phone interview yesterday afternoon. "A lot of the things we do have to get court approval. Now we can focus on one thing, and that's making the best products for our customers."

The claims against Grace stem from asbestos in the company's building materials and fire- protection products before 1973. Asbestos is known to cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, a lethal tumor of the lining of the chest and abdominal cavities.

Grace also mined and processed asbestos-containing vermiculite -- a substance used in insulation, potting soil and fertilizer -- in Libby, Mont., for 27 years. Much of the town was contaminated and many of its residents died or became sick with asbestos-related diseases.

Grace agreed last month to pay $250 million to remove contamination in Libby -- the largest cleanup settlement in the history of the federal government's Superfund program.

Grace said yesterday that it will take on a maximum of $1.5 billion in debt to emerge from bankruptcy and will seek a revolving loan of an undetermined amount.

Grace still has to settle cases dealing with attic insulation and property damage, but Festa said those should not affect the timetable to emerge from bankruptcy.

"The big nut was the personal injury claims when we declared bankruptcy, so this was a big one to get off of our docket," he said.

The settlement calls for Grace to make an upfront cash payment of $250 million to the trust. The company will then make annual payments totaling $1.55 billion from 2019 to 2034. Grace will put 50.1 percent of its common stock up as collateral to guarantee the payments.

The trust fund will also get proceeds from insurance that Grace had in place to cover asbestos claims. The company said yesterday that it has $917 million worth of coverage through solvent insurance carriers and $250 million through carriers that are undergoing some form of reorganization.

The trust fund also gets warrants to buy up to 10 million Grace shares for $17 a share -- well below yesterday's closing price of $26.83.

The fund will get about $1.2 billion more in assets from previous settlements with Sealed Air Corp. and Fresenius Medical Care Holdings Inc. Those companies purchased two former Grace business units just before the chemical maker's bankruptcy filing. Lawyers for asbestos claimants said the asset sales were fraudulent, arguing that Grace sold the units to shield itself from asbestos claims.

To get a piece of the settlement, claimants will have to apply to the trust fund. A panel will determine if the claim qualifies and then seek to determine an award amount, said Cooney, the victims' lawyer. The amount a victim receives will depend on such factors as age and severity of the illness.

"You'll have the right to recover a whole range of values depending on how you were personally impacted," Cooney said.

Under the settlement, Grace will be shielded from further personal injury lawsuits. Victims could sue the trust only if they are not happy with a settlement.

"This settles everything," Festa said. "They cannot sue Grace for any further asbestos liabilities in the future. They would have to go through the trust and say they were not being treated fairly."

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