HELENA, Mont. — The Montana Supreme Court has upheld a $563,000 jury award to a former Helena family that abandoned a house after learning it contained contamination from a methamphetamine lab.
A jury found in September 2010 that Lewis and Clark County failed in its duty to report a 2002 meth lab bust at the house to the Department of Environmental Quality.
James and Josephine Slack closed on the house in November 2005, a month after the reporting law took effect. Two years later, the DEQ told the family about the earlier meth bust and urged them to have the house tested for contamination.
Tests revealed extensive meth contamination to the house and its contents. Mitigating the damage would cost $145,000, more than the couple paid for the house, so they abandoned it and defaulted on their mortgage. Their lawsuit also argued they incurred debt replacing their belongings.
The county’s appeal argued that it had no duty to retroactively report meth labs, the Independent Record (http://bit.ly/soRK6o ) reported. The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday the county didn’t raise that issue at trial and could not raise it on appeal.
“Despite there being essentially no factual issues, the county did nothing to seek a ruling on a purely legal issue at any time during the course of the litigation,” Justice Michael Wheat wrote for a unanimous five-judge panel. “It is simply too late to seek that ruling now.”
The Slacks filed a cross appeal, seeking $187,000 in attorney’s fees. The court denied that appeal, saying the county’s appeal was not frivolous or in bad faith, as required under the law to force such an award.
“The defense was just not raised properly,” the court said in a synopsis of the case.
Trevor Uffelman, the attorney for the Slacks, said his clients won’t get rich from the jury award, from which they must pay their lawyer fees.
“I think what they’ll ultimately get is enough to get back on their feet and allow them to move on with their lives,” Uffelman said.
The family also sued the real estate agency, but the jury found it had no liability.
Another action against the former owner was settled out of court.